Photographer: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

How Do You Make Meat GMO Free When Most U.S. Feed Isn’t?

Applegate wants to get a step closer to nature—only nature isn’t easy to find.

Chicken lovers who demand more than the natural, organic, or free-range labels slapped on pretty much everything these days may be happily surprised to find a new product in the supermarket freezer: Applegate Farms has started shipping Non-GMO Project Verified organic chicken nuggets to retailers nationwide.

Sure, we’re talking nuggets here. But pledging to consumers that these U.S. chickens never ate a kernel of corn manipulated by transgenic science signals a significant escalation for Applegate. Just last year, this preeminent purveyor of natural and organic meats promised to eliminate all genetically modified ingredients from production. Now its organic nuggets are the first Applegate item to get the new Non-GMO seal—and they won't be the last. The company is announcing on Wednesday its commitment to guarantee that every one of its products—both organic and natural—is non-GMO, all the way up the supply chain to the animals’ feed.

“We just think people have the right to know what’s in the products they eat,” Applegate President Steven J. Lykken says.

The problem is that Applegate made its pledge in a country that's embraced GMO agriculture. Finding enough unsullied feed in America promises to be difficult.

For the nuggets, at least, there won’t be a change in animal husbandry, just the additional layer of verification required for the new label. Applegate’s organic products are already necessarily non-GMO. To be certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, genetically modified feed and ingredients are verboten. The next batch of items to be verified will be its 100 percent grass-fed beef from Uruguay and Australia. Again, by virtue of being all grass-fed, these cows weren’t eating any GMOs anyway.

It's Applegate's bigger line of “natural” products, a label which falls short of the USDA organic seal but complies with the company’s internal standards, that will see the biggest difference. These make up three-quarters of Applegate's business.

A movable feast

Even as food companies liberally toss out the “natural” label at their peril—see the recent lawsuit against Applegate parent Hormel—Applegate actually defines the term. It says its natural products come from animals that are raised without antibiotics or added growth hormones, given 100 percent vegetarian diets, and raised humanely with space to engage in natural behavior.

Nevertheless, these animals still typically eat genetically modified corn and soy. About 90 percent of those crops in the U.S. are grown from genetically modified seeds, making the process of finding non-GMO options in America an enormous challenge. As a result, many companies must import their non-GMO ingredients from abroad. “There are currently about 40 countries worldwide in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America with outright bans on GMOs, making sourcing non-GMO ingredients from outside the U.S. an appealing option,” the Non-GMO Project said.

This is where Applegate stands to make the biggest impact. The company, which projected $340 million in sales last year, says it plans to source the non-GMO feed for its farms domestically. While the new commitment will require changes from only 672 of the company's nearly 2,500 farms, the feed growers, haulers and storage facilities that serve all of Applegate's farms will also need to get tested for cross-contamination as part of the Non-GMO Project verification.

Certified non-GMO crops do sell at higher prices, but stakeholders are reluctant to take the leap because they also require more work and money throughout the supply chain. Partners like feed-mill owners, says Applegate's Lykken, “need the line of sight of a customer” to know it’s the right investment to make, and Applegate is now providing that.

That other food companies might take advantage of its efforts and dip into these newly verified non-GMO suppliers doesn’t worry Lykken, who says it goes hand-in-hand with the company’s mission to “change the meat we eat.”

What does natural really mean?

No matter how many guarantees one makes that soy- or corn-based vegetarian feed is non-GMO, by some definitions, food produced on an industrial scale can never truly be natural.

“From an evolutionary, before-man perspective, both pigs and chickens are omnivorous,” says Matt Poore, a ruminant nutrition specialist at North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They are certainly not vegetarians. Chickens love worms and insects, and pigs will eat almost anything. Cattle, meanwhile, are natural foragers, and for most of their lives still are—even industrially produced beef cattle usually only eat grain at the end of their lives.

A truly natural diet would vary widely by species, says Lykken: “That ‘natural’ designation in itself is a powder keg of questions.”

Whether a Non-GMO Project Verified label on a natural or organic product will answer those questions, or exacerbate them, remains to be seen.

Meaningful or marketing?

A GMO is a genetically modified organism, something seen in America most commonly in farm products such as corn, soy and sugar beets. As corporate agriculture joined with the chemical industry to change the genetic makeup of crops and make them less susceptible to drought or insects, these artificially occurring versions of earth's bounty have made their way, in one form or another, into your soda, snacks and steak. While GMO defenders point to the mountains of science deeming them safe, there is no shortage of warnings out there that what we don't know might harm us, and that consumers are at least entitled to know whether a certain package contains any GMOs.

So, savvy shoppers will ask as they seek to avoid GMOs: If the product is organic, wasn’t it already made without them?

In short, yes. But that's besides the point as far as marketers are concerned. “Non-GMO” is another surefire way to sell premium food products to an increasingly food-conscious public. Retail sales in the U.S. of food and beverages labeled as non-GMO were estimated at $200 billion in 2014 and projected to reach $330 billion by 2019. That represents a 65 percent increase compared with the rest of the food and beverage market’s 13 percent rise, according to a report from Packaged Facts. Sales of non-GMO foods are growing faster than organics in U.S. supermarkets, according to a recent news report.

“The difference here is one more step of endorsement, which includes testing,” Lykken says. “This is just one more piece of consumer confidence that we can offer.” (The USDA also performs periodic testing for organic certification.)

Shoppers will certainly spend more for the confidence that comes with that little non-GMO label. “This really isn’t about science or safety,” Lykken says. “It’s about transparency and responding to the marketplace.”

“It’s about marketing,” says Michael Halen, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence focusing on packaged food. “People want healthier products, whether or not there’s scientific evidence behind the change.”

Watch Next: Confused About What to Eat? You're Not Alone. 

Confused About What to Eat? You're Not Alone
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE