By Eva Meszaros

Leaders in the growing campaign for ingredient transparency convened this morning for a special panel discussion, GMO Labeling and the Specialty Food Industry. Presented by the Specialty Food Association's Natural & Organic Council, the panel included Helen Kor of the Hain Celestial Group, Melody Meyer of UNFI and Errol Schweizer of Whole Foods Markets, and was moderated by Bob Burke of the Natural Products Consulting Institute.

In a room nearly filled to capacity, specialty food suppliers, retailers and other industry professionals asked questions that ranged from technical steps in the Non-GMO verification process to the broader implications of labeling for consumer awareness and confusion. Non-GMO products are growing at a high rate in specialty foods and more consumers continue to show interest, said UNFI's Meyer.

Throughout the session that extended past its hour-long scheduled time, panelists emphasized a focus on product transparency, building consumer awareness and transforming the supply chain to increasing production of non-GMO ingredients. Errol Schweizer of Whole Foods Market, the national specialty food retailer that announced earlier this year a plan to mandate GMO labeling for all its more than 300,000 SKUs by 2018, noted that the national retailer's non-GMO products are selling at two to three times the rate of overall store growth.

Questions from attendees centered on feasibility and the impact of such mandates as Whole Foods'. "What we're trying to do here is create a full, 360-degree market infrastructure to support our initiative," Schweizer said of the five-year plan to work toward product transparency. The retailer has partnered with the Non-GMO Project and other organizations to establish a plan to cover all ingredients—from plant-based ingredients to animal products—noting an emphasis on the so-called high-risk ingredients, such as corn, soy and canola, as designated by the Non-GMO Project.

"What we have to dig into is figuring out how to expand the supply of those ingredients," he said, calling out the need to work directly with the sources, such as feed mills, farmers and seed suppliers. Increasing supply would alleviate many of the current obstacles preventing many small-scale companies from pursuing non-GMO certification, such as cost to the supplier and the consumer.

Early in the discussion, UNFI's Meyer spoke to the failed passage of Proposition 37, which would have mandated GMO labeling in California. "I think in some ways it was a victory, because it brought this awareness on the national level," Meyer said, adding that 37 states currently are examining related legislation and 2 have already passed some level of requirements. She also drew attention to Washington state ballot initiative I-522,  which seeks to mandate the labeling of products with genetically engineered ingredients.

One attendee inquired about the role of the term natural in labeling food products. "We're trying to move away from the whole concept of 'natural' because it's been watered down," Schweizer said. Meyer took a firmer stance: "The term natural doesn't really have any definition, according to the FDA or USDA," excluding meat, she said. "There are no regulations. It really doesn't mean anything."