The GMO food fight

As state campaigns for mandatory labeling are fought off, consumers and retailers can vote with their wallets to bring transparency and GMO awareness.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what foods are the most transparent of them all?
The average American enjoys an abundance of rights, but the right to know what is in their food is not always one of them. Today, many consumers are demanding to know what foods contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), not just at the supermarket but at the polls as well. nongmosign

The move toward a more transparent food supply can be seen on nearly every shelf in the supermarket. Many food manufacturers now voluntarily label their products with seals attributing them as non-GMO, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, soy-free and so on. Since its founding in 2005, the Non-GMO Project has verified 13,000 products as non-GMO and has just as many products pending approval, says Megan Westgate, executive director.
Based in Bellingham, Wash., this non-profit collaboration of manufacturers, retailers, farmers and consumers dedicated to ensuring the availability of non-GMO foods and beverages provides independent, third-party verification and non-GMO guidance for products in the U.S. and Canada. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal indicates that the product bearing the seal has gone through a verification process that ensures it has been produced according to consensus-based best practices for GMO-avoidance.

“We believe consumers have the right to know what’s in their foods so they can make the choice that’s best for them,” says Brad Lahrman, brand manager for Ayer, Mass.-based Vitasoy USA, manufacturer of the Nasoya brand non-GMO tofu. “Whether or not it’s legally mandated by the states or federal government, or the fight continues to drag on, consumers will vote with their wallet no matter what the law says.”

The fight for GMO labeling is front-of-mind for most within the natural foods industry. Manufacturers, suppliers, retailers and consumers all want to know what lies ahead in this great debate, and many have taken a public position on the matter. Last month, Washington state voters made their preference known at the polls by narrowly defeating Initiative I-522 “People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” Had it passed, Washington would have become the first state to enact mandatory labeling on all products containing genetically modified organisms. Maine and Connecticut have already passed similar laws, but those will not take effect until other New England states pass similar legislation.

By Election Day, the fight to pass I-522 resembled last year’s Proposition 37 battle in California. In the fight over California’s labeling initiatives Proposition 37 opponents succeeded in persuading voters that labeling would have a negative effect on food prices and the livelihood of farmers. Opponents poured $46 million into defeating Prop 37, outspending labeling supporters five to one.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which collected money from its members, gave a total of $11 million to defeat I-522. Contributors included PepsiCo, Nestle USA, The Coca-Cola Co., General Mills and ConAgra. The No on 522 campaign raised a record-setting $21.4 million to fight food labeling, while supporters raised $6.3 million. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps was the top contributor to the pro-labeling group, giving about $2,00,000.

“The awareness of GMOs has increased tremendously in the past two years since Prop 37 in California, which lost by only a few percentage points. But it won in many ways. It won in terms of raising consciousness about GMOs and the fact that consumers can vote with their wallets,” says Arjan Stephens, executive vice president for Nature’s Path Organic Foods. The Richmond, B.C., Canada-based company contributed $190,000 to Yes on 522.

Oh my GMO
GMOs are made using biotechnology, which can result in plants that would not normally occur in nature. More than 60 countries around the world—including European Union members and China—have chosen to place significant regulations on genetically modified food and products. Since being introduced in the 1990’s, GMOs have gained a significant foothold in today’s food supply. The Non-GMO Project estimates that more than 90% of the canola, cotton, soy and sugar beet crops in the U.S. are genetically engineered.

Most GMOs are altered at the DNA level to be more tolerant of pesticides and herbicides, or to create their own pesticides with the goal of generating more abundant crops. However, some farmers, environmentalists and many others believe genetic modification causes more harm than good. Labeling opponents believe that without scientific evidence showing that genetically modified foods cause health or safety issues, labeling is unnecessary.

The FDA maintains its position that GMOs are harmless, claiming there is no evidence to substantiate adverse health effects. But the opposite is also true: There is inconclusive evidence to show that they are safe. Industry observers say the real issue is the consumer’s right to know what is in their food and to choose or avoid products based on that knowledge.

In September, the GMA launched, a website designed to provide consumers, policymakers and the media with answers to their questions about the use of genetically modified food ingredients.

“Modern agricultural biotechnology helps us keep American food affordable and allows us to do that in a way that protects and preserves our natural resources by using less land, fewer pesticides and less water,” says Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based GMA. “Genetically modified technology has fueled an agricultural revolution in the U. S. that has helped us feed a growing American and world population. By 2050, we will need to expand food production by 70% just to keep pace with a global population.”

In a survey conducted by The New York Times this past July, 93% of consumers support labeling foods that have been genetically modified or engineered. Three-quarters of consumers expressed concern about GMOs in their food, with most of them worried about the effects on health. Thirty-seven percent of those worried about GMOs said they feared that such foods cause cancers or allergies, although scientific studies continue to show that there is no added risk.

Consumers were even less comfortable about eating meat from genetically engineered animals: 75% said they would not eat GMO fish, and about two-thirds said they would not eat meat that had been modified.

If polling data is not enough to convince opponents, there is plenty of sales data to support transparency. For the 52 weeks leading up to July 2013, SPINS reported sales on Non-GMO Project Verified products soared 22% in the natural channel in 2012 and 13% in the conventional channel. The same time frame saw sales of these products reach $3.5 billion.

More than 30 states currently have GMO labeling laws in the works, but many industry members believe a federal standard is the best way to go. “A national standard for GMO labeling provides consistency for consumers so we want to make sure there’s one consistent standard, not 50 different ones,” says Molly Keveney, communications and community affairs for WhiteWave Foods Co. The Broomfield, Colo.-based company is home to Silk and Horizon Organic, two brands leading the fight for transparency.

In July, the Natural Products Association (NPA) board of directors announced its endorsement of the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. This would require the FDA to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients so consumers can make educated decisions about the foods they buy.

“This is really very simple—people have a right to know what’s in their food,” says John Shaw, executive director and CEO for the Washington, D.C.-based NPA. “A national standard is the best, most cost-effective and least-confusing way to deliver on this commitment for American consumers. To have hundreds of different state and local requirements would be counterproductive and expensive.”

Non-GMO Month magic
The Non-GMO Project created Non-GMO Month in 2010 as a platform for raising awareness on this issue. During Non-GMO Month in October 2012, 1,500 supporting retailers saw an average sales increase of 11.3% for Non-GMO Project Verified items, generated 4.7 million Facebook impressions and drove the verification of nearly 700 new products Project officials say.

“The number one simple thing any retailer can do is put up shelf-tags by any Non-GMO Project Verified products,” says Non-GMO Project’s Westgate. “Every month, we update a list of all verified products. It’s an Excel spreadsheet that retailers can download from our website that has all of the verified UPCs. Retailers can plug it into their POS systems and generate labels for identified products.”

Many manufacturers agree that signage is the best way to raise awareness for non-GMO products. “Retailers should be highlighting the Non-GMO products that they are carrying. They can do this through shelf-talkers, banners, floor-statics, end-caps and special displays, as well as through any educational and nutritional programs that the retailer may have for their shoppers,” says Todd J. Kluger, vice president of sales and marketing for Richvale, Calif.-based Lundberg Family Farms.

The fight for transparency and GMO awareness made headlines around the world when Whole Foods Market announced that by 2018, all products sold in its U.S. and Canadian stores containing genetically modified ingredients must be labeled as such. In 2009, Whole Foods began submitting products in its 365 Everyday Value private label line to verification by the Non-GMO Project. Today, Whole Foods’ shelves carry some 3,300 private label and branded products that are certified, the largest selection of any grocery chain in the country, Project officials say.

Kluger says this announcement will influence other retailers to adopt a GMO labeling stance of their own and to examine their natural private label offerings.

“A lot of independents and cooperatives are following their lead, and putting labels on shelves, ensuring that brands that they sell either label GMOs or they are deciding not to carry foods with GMOs in them,” Stephens adds.

Westgate says that by participating in Non-GMO Month, highlighting Non-GMO choices and providing education year-round, retailers have the opportunity to stand out as a leader in the community as a store that cares about shoppers right-to-know what they are eating.

Observers say that right now consumers’ collective purchasing power at the supermarket can send the greatest message to opponents of labeling. “Buying products labeled organic and non-GMO is the clearest message we can send, letting anti-labeling businesses know that we want the same food rights that citizens of 64 other countries around the world enjoy,” says Gary Hirshberg, chairman and co-founder of Stonyfield Farm, based in Londonderry, N.H. Hirshberg holds the same title with Just Label It, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign created to advocate for the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

“Supermarkets are in a position to be the game changers when it comes to GMOs,” he says. “On the frontlines with consumers, the information and choices they provide their shoppers is what will influence our food culture for years to come. We challenge retailers to use their position to source and offer more products that are clearly labeled, and to educate their buyers, clerks and store nutritionists to be advocates for their consumers when it comes to this critical issue. In the end, I truly believe consumers will reward the grocers that offer the most choice and clearest information with loyalty for years to come.”

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