In the wake of several movers and shakers throughout the food industry switching over to stricter standards when it comes to labeling (or even offering in the first place) food made from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, The Associated Press has the inside scoop on a momentous step in the direction of transparency: the United States Department of Agriculture will begin issuing “USDA Process Verified” labels certifying that a product is free of GMOs.
Before supporters start throwing their hats in the air and detractors shaking their heads, hold the phone—the labeling is completely voluntary, and companies themselves have to pay for the certification. So instead of labeling for organic foods, this is more like certified, legit claims such as “Humanely Raised” or “Antibiotic-Free.”
What does this have to do with cheese? While cows, sheep, and goats themselves are not genetically modified, a large share of the conventional corn that goes into their feed often is. In the future, when you see a cheese labeled as GMO-free, you will know that the animal that produced the milk that went into making the cheese did not eat GMO corn or hay.
While it’s certainly going to make a difference to have a governmentally regulated, national policy for labeling a make-detail that a huge amount of Americans want to know about, private industry has already surged ahead to shape restaurant counters and grocery store shelves. Chipotle recently announced that it plans on ridding itself of GMO ingredients, and—even more pertinent in the realm of cheese—Whole Foods has publicly committed to labeling all of its products that are made with GMO ingredients by 2018.
This last policy is already having a substantial effect on cheesemakers across the country: If their cheeses want to remain on Whole Foods shelves, they need to switch over to GMO-free feed, which can be significantly more expensive. Whether or not to pass that added expense over to consumers, and whether or not consumers will react kindly, remain an open question. But with the new USDA GMO-free label, makers will be able to officially and proactively talk up their GMO-free status; seeing the depth of feeling surrounding this issue, it might just be the right economic bet to wager.