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Food industry plays it both ways with GMO labels

Annie Baxter Aug 4, 2015
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Reed Grimm believes nature knows best. So when he shops with his nieces at the Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op in St. Paul, Minnesota, he only goes for organic fruits, and he looks for products that say “non-GMO.”

“We want to eat things that are natural, that are just coming straight out of the earth like it has been for milennia,” says Grimm, a musician who lives in a Twin Cities suburb. “Nature knows what it’s doing.”

Reed Grimm shops with his nieces, Rowan and Rio Hilden.

Reed Grimm shops with his nieces, Rowan and Rio Hilden.

Roughly 80 percent of processed food products contain genetically modified ingredients. That means the corn or soy in them was grown with some genetic tweaks to fend off insects or resist weed killers. The scientific consensus is that GMO products are safe. But Grimm is skeptical.

“GMOs are in their infancy really, just like the internet. It’s so brand new. So there are all these questions and we don’t have all the information,” he says.

A growing number of food companies are catering to people like Grimm with non-GMO foods, even as they oppose mandatory labeling of products that do contain genetically modified ingredients.

With the support of many big food producers and manufacturers, the U.S. House recently passed H.R. 1599, which would block laws requiring GMO product labels in Vermont, Maine and Connecticut. The bill’s future in the Senate is unclear.

A GMO label may turn consumers away, the food industry argues. But they’re wagering that a non-GMO label may attract shoppers.

“It’s really about removing any kind of barrier to purchase,” says Darren Seifer, the food and beverage industry analyst at the NPD Group.

Seifer says that in 2002, about 10 percent of adults were worried about the safety of GMOs. Today it’s more like 20 percent. Seifer says the GMO concerns coincide with consumers’ growing demand for so-called “clean labels”— products with no artificial flavors and colors. Seifer notes food companies are also catering to those interests.

“When you get to the point where you can’t take anything more away, can I then claim that what actually still exists in there is better than the guy who’s on the shelf next to me?” he says.

Customer Jesse Sawyer thinks foods with GM ingredients are safe.

Customer Jesse Sawyer thinks foods with GM ingredients are safe. 

Tufts University food industry expert Jim Tillotson says consumers who want Non-GMO products present food companies with a new marketing opportunity, similar to the “organic” and “natural” foods markets.

“Marketing is to determine what the consumer wants — not what you want to produce — but what they want so they will buy it,” he says.

Currently, an organization called the Non-GMO Project is the de facto standard-setter for Non-GMO food labeling. Its database of items that pass muster includes KIND Fruit and Nut Clusters, Post Grape-Nuts and Shells & White Cheddar from Annie’s, which is owned by General Mills. 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, representing 300 food manufacturing companies, backs the national standard for Non-GMO labeling proposed in H.R. 1599.

“It will provide a standardized labeling program so that consumers know what they’re buying is labeled appropriately,” says Michael Gruber, the trade group’s senior vice president.

 

 None of this matters much to Jesse Sawyer, a 28 year-old librarian in St. Paul. He gets why food companies don’t want to slap a GMO label on their products.

 

“I think it puts the mind of the consumer that maybe they are a bad thing,” he says.

 

 His research on the matter has persuaded him that GMOs pose no health risks, so labeling them as such might unnecessarily stoke consumers’ concerns. Because of that belief, he won’t seek out non-GMO products. Unless, of course, they look tasty. At the Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op, he grabs some tortilla chips bearing a non-GMO label. The label may not help in that instance, but certainly doesn’t hurt.

 

“If you’re putting a label on your product that lists it as GMO-free,” says NPD Group’s Darren Seifer, “it’s very likely you’re not going to deter consumers.”

 

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