New companies and Web sites trace GM crops through the food chain.
The controversy over genetically modified (GM) food abroad and mandatory labeling legislation for GM foods in Europe and Asia have hastened development of the identity preservation of grain in the U.S. Increasingly, consumers want to know more about their food, including where and how it was produced. Food processors are struggling to comply with labeling legislation that took effect this year in the European Union and takes effect in 2001 in Japan and Korea.
At a conference on identity-preserved (IP) grain held in Chicago in September, Mark Mansour, an attorney representing several multinational food companies, indicated that some of those companies are already seeking GM-free ingredients, to the extent they are available. Currently less than 2% of U.S. soybean acreage and less than 5% of U.S. corn acreage are identity preserved.
In recent months several new companies and programs have sprung up to help companies meet the challenges of an IP system. Advances in biotechnology, information technology and analytical technology will further allow the verification of value-enhanced and non-GM grain.
Tracking pedigree. In September, Agricultural Information Technologies launched a new company called IdentityPreserved.com. The company offers products, services, systems and Internet resources to help members of the food production chain grow, handle and use IP crops and livestock.
"We envision a landscape of fields producing grain destined for specific markets and grain bins filled with crops specially grown for a particular use," says Tim Aughenbaugh, president of IdentityPreserved.com. "Technology is giving us the ability to tear down barriers to identity preserved processes. We believe that in the near future more than half the crops grown in this country will be identity preserved. By simplifying and streamlining the process of identifying and tracking valuable characteristics in crops and livestock, we will make identity preservation more efficient and viable."
The company's newest product, IP Track, allows all parts of the production chain to communicate with each other over the Internet and trace a product from the field to the consumer's plate. All authorized partners in the production chain can instantly access data entered by any part of the chain from any location via the company's Web site, www.Identity Preserved.com. IP Track accepts input from a range of devices, including the company's own Crop Touch system, handheld computers, voice recordings and even paper forms. Contractors can create and post protocol requirements for a particular IP contract on the Web site. During the growing season, participating producers then use IP Track to record crop progress and protocol compliance. In the same way, independent auditors use IP Track to record observations of protocol fulfillment. IP Track also automatically records and maintains a pedigree for each IP product it tracks, including how a product is managed and when and where it gets transferred from one location to another.
IP Track joins IdentityPreserved. com's other products: Postmark signposts, CropTouch data collection technology, Seed Tag database, TraitCheck tests and GMOCheck tests. This past crop year, the company's services were used on 100 million bu. of IP grain. The company also has an IP registry service where growers can market their capabilities to interested companies.
Audit trails. The first company to offer online tracking of IP grain and food products is CropVerifeye.com. Launched last spring, the company provides third-party validated audit trails for IP products through its SmarTrace brand. It offers verification, validation and traceability of crops throughout the value chain on a worldwide basis. Producers enter data related to contract specifications into the CropVerifeye database, and then auditors validate these data through rigorous field and facility inspections. The audit data also are entered into the database and are accessible through an Internet connection. SmarTrace offers customers a choice of three levels of auditing.
"SmarTrace gives exporters, importers and food processors boundless, real-time access to what's happening with their identity-preserved crops and grains. A Japanese importer can check on the progress of a specific IP cornfield in Illinois from his Tokyo office by simply logging onto our site any time of day," says Dr. Jim Mock, vice president and general manager of Crop Verifeye.com. The company currently has a significant number of acres in trials using the system in corn, soybean, wheat, canola, barley and potato. Mock envisions a day when consumers from anywhere in the world will be able to log onto the company's Web site, enter a SmarTrace bar code from a product label and see where and how the major ingredients were produced. The company is garnering interest from customers in Japan, Australia and the European Union, according to Mock.
Maintaining integrity. Cargill's Illinois Cereal Mills (ICM) recently announced a new brand of IP corn products and a system for producing such products called InnovaSure. "The system maintains the integrity of specialty whole corn, yellow goods and masa through comprehensive procedures that start with the seed and continue through to customers' doorsteps," says ICM general manager Rex Winter. ICM has been perfecting the system for a number of years. Today more than 400 professional growers participate in the InnovaSure system to help meet the growing global demand for value-enhanced grains.
Establishing standards. This past year, the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) administered IP programs for more than 100,000 acres of various IP crops across several states. In 1999, AOSCA established general IP protocol guidelines and standards as well as protocols for non-GM soybeans and non-GM corn.
The American Soybean Association is developing an identity preservation training and certification program for the food chain that will be launched early in 2001. Chris Novak, special assistant to the CEO, states, "We recognize IP is going to be a major part of the soybean industry. We also recognize to best serve the needs of customers overseas and to protect our export market, farmers, grain handlers and shippers need to have a clear understanding of the mechanics of how to do it right."
It will be a tremendous challenge for the U.S. grain and food industries to meet the myriad of genetically modified (GM) food labeling requirements being considered in hundreds of countries. In 2000, 25% of the U.S. corn crop and 55% of the soybean crop were GM varieties. Achieving a GM tolerance level of 1% or less is nearly impossible even with identity preservation protocols. The widespread adoption of GM crops in the U.S. makes it difficult to ensure that grain is not being contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as it is handled and transported from the field to the end customer. Industry insiders even question whether the foundation (parent) seed for non-GM varieties can meet a 1% purity level.
Although tests for the presence of specific GMOs are getting more reliable and less expensive, no uniform testing methods and sampling procedures have been established for the industry. It can and does happen that identity preserved grain tests negative for GM presence throughout the transportation chain and then tests positive when the shipment arrives overseas. The presence of one or two stray GM kernels in a sample can result in the rejection of an entire shipload of corn.
"When standards that nobody can attain are mandated, the logical conclusion will be a loss of confidence in our food system. Everyone in the food chain loses," says Mark Mansour, an attorney representing several multinational food companies. "There is no harmony to the legislation being enacted by countries. This makes it very difficult and expensive for food companies to comply."
He predicts a severe disruption in the marketplace as labeling takes effect. "Companies will pull products off the shelves in some markets because they can't guarantee GMO-free status. They will do everything possible to protect their brands," he says.
Mansour observes that multinational producers are reluctant to expose themselves to subjective and potentially biased testing administered by interest groups, such as Greenpeace. In September, the Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of seven anti-biotech activist groups, generated publicity by announcing that the lab Genetic ID had found a biotech corn variety not approved for human consumption in a sample of Taco Bell grocery store taco shells. The lab found 1% of the corn DNA was from StarLink corn, a biotech hybrid allowed for animals but not approved for human use. Less than one-half of one percent of the U.S. corn crop was planted to StarLink hybrids in 1999. About 75% of the corn produced in the U.S. is used for animal feed.