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GMO labeling: Food makers increasingly aim for cleaner labels

6 min read


(Photo: Flickr user Take Back Your Health Conference)

GMO labeling legislation continued on its journey this year as Vermont and other states passed bills in 2014 to require GMO labeling, and Congress is to vote soon on whether or not to block individual states from requiring the labeling.

Various facets of the food industry have clear opinions on the issue, with consumer rights advocates acting as proponents for the labeling citing consumers’ rights to know and industry associations advocating for a streamlined national standard, which would void individual states from requiring the labeling and would likely make it difficult to require labeling across the country.

Consumers have been increasingly engaged in the food they buy and eat, and a majority are seeking free-from foods, according to a survey from Mintel Group. Eighty-four percent of consumers surveyed said they’re choosing more natural, less-processed foods, and 59% said healthier foods have fewer ingredients. Among the ingredients people said they shy away from are trans fats, preservatives and genetically modified ingredients.

Food manufacturers are listening.

A slew of big-name manufacturers have recently announced initiatives and efforts to reduce artificial ingredients and genetically modified ingredients, including McCormick, Kellogg, General Mills and J.M. Smucker Co., to name a few.

Getting clean, healthy

“Regarding package health claims that consumers seek the most, our data suggests an underlying consumer perception that health equates to ‘free-from,’” said David Fikes, Food Marketing Institute‘s vice president, consumer/community affairs and communications. “Since 2007, respondents to our research have emphasized fresh, less processed foods when it comes to their shopping goals.”

Responding to consumer demand for transparency, Zevia reformulated its zero-calorie soft drinks to remove caramel coloring and achieve non-GMO Project Verification status, according to CEO Paddy Spence. Zevia’s sales are seven times what they were in 2010 and it is the fastest growing “natural” product, according to Nielsen, Spence said.

And simplicity is the main focus for new products at J.M. Smucker Co., according to CEO Richard Smucker. The company has introduced products such as Smucker’s Fruit and Honey spreads and Pillsbury Purely Simple cake mixes made with natural ingredients in response to consumer demand for products made with fewer, simpler ingredients.

McCormick & Co. also announced plans to increase its organic and non-GMO offerings; organic offerings will make up 80% of its Gourmet herbs and spices line by next year, the company said.

“With nearly 43,000 products in the average store, the grocery industry is clearly about providing options that cater to a diversity of customer preferences and offer products appealing to wide-range of consumer inclinations,” Fikes said, adding that FMI tracks consumer preference in its annual U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report with The Hartman Group, and the data suggests that the consumer definition of health and wellness is expanding and embracing a greater nutritional awareness.

For this reason, many retailers are employing nutritionists and dietitians to help consumers achieve health goals.

“Many shoppers have diet restrictions, food allergies and disease management needs, which is why supermarkets have made critical investments in the health of their customers by employing pharmacists and dietitians,” Fikes said. “Food retailers take that ally role as a critical part of their larger role of feeding families and enriching lives.”

FMI’s research shows that more than 95% of all supermarkets employ dietitians at the corporate, regional and store levels.

“Given our industry’s penchant for offering choice and the differing wellness needs of our member’s customers, our organization would never endorse a particular diet trend,” Fikes said. “However, consumers who have questions about how to best manage their particular wellness needs don’t need to travel farther than their grocery store to find a reputable health care professional.”

In the produce industry, growing enough food to feed the ever-expanding global population poses a challenge, and WHO has estimated that we will need to increase food production by 70% by 2040, said Produce Marketing Association‘s Chief Science and Technology Officer Bob Whitaker.  

“It is important that the produce industry have access to a broad array of new variety development tools, including genetic engineering, to ensure that we can have access to fruit and vegetable varieties with improved yields, insect and pest resistances while decreasing chemical use, drought tolerance and improved nutrition,” he said.

Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says consumers are looking for more information about the products they purchase and food and beverage manufacturers are striving to provide that information to them in the clearest way possible.

“Our industry’s Facts Up Front program is just one example of how manufacturers are using the food label to make information more accessible to the consumer and we look forward to identifying other communications vehicles in the future,” Kennedy said.

A national standard

The industry’s associations have made their stances on genetically modified food and biotechnology very clear — they see a national standard regarding GMO labeling — or more specifically, non-GMO labeling — to be the best solution for manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike.

“Our policy is simple and states that both food retailers and the consumers they serve require an accurate, consistent and clear national standard when it comes to non-GMO food products,” said Fikes of FMI, which acts as a leading voice for various industry groups on the issue.

“HR 1599 protects the consumer from a costly and confusing 50-state patchwork of labeling laws by ensuring that the federal government retains its authority at the top of America’s food safety pyramid,” Kennedy of GMA said. “It would also create a single, unified standard for food to be labeled as ‘GMO-free’ as part of a program modeled after the popular USDA Organics program.”

“We believe that a state by state labeling system doesn’t help anyone – it causes confusion, increases infrastructure costs and possibly higher costs for consumers,” said Whitaker. “If labeling of genetically engineered produce is required, we support federal preemption so the rule is consistent across states.”

In the end, it seems that genetic engineering when it comes to food and agriculture will be a given, at least for now, for various facets of the food industry, but those who make an effort towards “cleaner” labels will likely find some success in resonating with today’s consumers.


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