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Transparency Coming for Genetically Engineered Foods

For more than a decade, while Europe rejected genetically engineered foods – GMOs in the popular parlance – Americans remained oblivious and unconcerned. In the meantime, U.S. grocery shelves were filled with products made from GM corn, soy and sugar beets. Yet, the blind indifference has not endured, as activists in the state of Vermont waged a successful referendum that forces labeling of products sold in that state, starting in June 2016.

Lisa Kelly, MPH, RDN, a Registered Dietitian with MSLGROUP, has managed food industry communications for more than two decades. She’s among the communicators most active in this arena. In particular, she counsels the United Soybean Board, which represents U.S. growers of soybeans. In a chat with People’s Insights, she comments on what to expect next:

People’s Insights: Lisa, how will food companies respond to this new labeling law?

Lisa: The requirement has prodded many companies to declare that they will label GM ingredients in their products on a nationwide basis. It wouldn’t be practical to label only in affected states.

Which companies in particular will adopt this labeling approach?

Lisa: It’s a long list. Mars, ConAgra, Kellogg’s, Campbell’s and General Mills were among the first to declare. They fell like cards in the face of inaction by the federal government. Some companies will simply choose not to sell in Vermont, but that’s not a sustainable strategy.

GMO 03So a small state will call the shots on this major policy issue?

Lisa: Yes, and other states are entertaining similar laws, but with considerable variation. The FDA will need to act to avoid marketplace chaos. It’s been difficult to date — the matter is politically charged – but all parties recognize the need for a national solution, not a patchwork.

Will they act?

Lisa: Almost certainly, but with their usual deliberate pace.

How do you expect consumers to react to the new labeled products?

Lisa: More products than not – well over 50% — will have to declare GM ingredients. Sugar beets, corn, soybeans, and a few other ingredients are ubiquitous in processed food products.

Just as with trans fat labeling, consumers will react initially, but the consumption of these foods will be normalized. In the case of trans fat, consumers initially stopped buying – sales dropped immediately – but in many cases returned to normal consumption levels.

Margarine remains weakened, with consumers retreating to butter. By contrast, sales of other foods labeled as containing trans fats, have returned to past levels for the most part.

What’s cooking?

Taking a cue from Campbell Soup, companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s and ConAgra announced that they would start GMO labeling in their products.

Are they any other cases that are predictive for GMO labeling?

Lisa: Several years ago, we saw hysteria over High Fructose Corn Syrup. Some consumers retreated to sucrose, but there is now far less hubbub. While consumers still say they avoid HFCS, their intent isn’t reflected in sales figures. Look at tomato ketchup, for example: The U.S. market leader created an HFCS- free version, but their stalwart product made from HFCS continues to lead the market.

Another case in point: Green Coca – Cola with Stevia did not match expectations. As always, there’s what consumers say, and what they do.

Will there be a “poster child” for GM foods: one product that will especially bear the brunt of consumer pushback? Something comparable to margarine in the case of trans fat?

Lisa: I can’t think of one. GM foods traditionally tend to be supporting ingredients, not the headliners. That may change in the future as additional products, such as fruits and vegetables, enter the marketplace.

Will companies drop GM ingredients to achieve GMO- free status or claims?

Lisa: That’s not practical. The alternatives are more expensive and not nearly plentiful enough. Given this reality, you can rest assured that food companies have done their research and will adopt labeling language that promises to win the best possible reception.

Does this movement to force labeling portend other food industry trends?

Lisa: Absolutely. The consumer right-to-know movement is not limited to GMOs. Openness and honesty are essential to millennials – they want to know about sourcing, sustainability, animal welfare… it’s a long list. The demand for transparency isn’t new, but it’s reaching a critical mass.

GMO 02So called “Big Food” has been fairly battered by these issues. Are they prepared to respond successfully?

Lisa: We’ll see. Industry’s solution is: open the books and adopt a Smart Label solution. You can read about such solutions at smartlabel.org. Smart Labels will disclose anything and everything about a product – vastly more than could appear on any label. That will permit consumers to discover what matters to them – sourcing, allergens, country of origin, you name it.

Most companies are on board and some are already using it; Hershey and Unilever are the earliest adopters. The Grocery Manufacturers Association aims for 30,000 products with Smart Label by end of 2017. Government has signaled its support.

What is compelling this broad acceptance of Smart Labels?

Lisa: Smart Labels are something close to the Holy Grail for the food industry: It saves money by sharing this information proactively rather than on demand through customer service channels. The information reaches the consumers who have real concerns, without needlessly alarming or confusing others. It dramatically steps up transparency, while leaving more room on the label for marketing. It allows for claims validation and better traceability for recalls, benefitting food safety. It will serve as a ready platform for addressing future issues – BPA or acrylamide, for example – or new labeling requirements. These qualities make it nearly inevitable, and likely to extend globally in time, especially as smartphones become a ubiquitous companion to shopping. In fact, don’t be surprised if it should extend to a wide range of consumer products.

Is there anything that could stand in the way of Smart Labels?

Lisa: Consumer objection would be the only hurdle – yet I can’t see that happening. Critics might complain that consumers use QR codes at very low rates and wonder, “Is it a way to hire the facts?” On the contrary, Smart Labels will finally make QR codes more useful by delivering information consumers truly want and need.

What’s cooking?

Ahold USA announced a goal of 100% cage-free eggs by 2022.

How do you expect this “deep labeling” to influence the marketplace?

Lisa: Ah, this is very interesting. I expect it to level the playing field and prove a net benefit to big food brands. Small organic brands could burn in their own fire. For example, organic products may need to declare the use of approved pesticides, surprising consumers who think organic equals pesticide-free. Likewise, ingredient sources could prove embarrassing for supposedly authentic brands with a home-spun story. Let’s say your brand touts Florida tomatoes and that crop fails, leaving only South American product. Suddenly, you’re not “grown in the USA.” Bigger companies with superior supply chain management will be advantaged in this environment.

Will food companies finally make a case for GMOs, educating consumers about their value and safety?

Lisa: They should. There’s a very strong case that GMOs are more sustainable. Millennials didn’t get the memo on this, but they may now. Also, you can bet that GM foods will help to respond to the impact of climate change on food crops. There is a story to tell, and now perhaps more cause to tell it.

GMO 01

How about the promise that GMOs are necessary to feed the world’s growing population? Do consumers care when it comes down to their personal food choices?

Lisa: While genetic engineering will likely serve as an important tool in feeding the world, there are many other benefits that people are looking for in order to embrace the technology, such as improving the welfare of themselves and their family members.

If there a better argument to make?

Lisa: To the extent GM foods can improve human nutrition delivering more personal benefits, they will win more consumer support, not to mention greater support of policy makers seeing healthier populations and lower costs. People’s Insights: Will we now see attack ads from major GMO-free brands? Lisa: Oh sure, from smaller companies, but let’s face the facts: The supply of non-GMO ingredients is too scant to serve even a few major food companies. A non-GMO platform is no longer feasible at any kind of scale without major reformulations to allow for alternative ingredients.

What’s cooking?

Panera Bread’s ‘No No List’, provides details of artificial ingredients like preservatives and sweeteners the company avoids in its products.

Might an ingredient like sugarcane benefit from a move to GMO-free claims?

Lisa: Here’s the rub. Sugarcane may be GMO-free but it has its own problems, including child labor and heavy water use. It’s a glass house, and stone-throwing would not be recommended.

Will labeling be a boon to a retailers like Whole Foods and makers of whole foods?

Lisa: They will surely aim to make the most of it – organic foods are GMO-free by definition – but pricing will be a significant deterrent for the super-premium sector.

OK, let’s say the big hubbub passes with GM products largely accepted. Does it make the water safer for other GM crops?

Lisa: Quite possibly. There’s a large pipeline of GM products heading to market over the next decade, and they will be closely watching the consumer response. They may see some initial hysteria, but in the end it may amount to a whole bunch of nothing.

Why was there so much food industry foot-dragging on this issue?

Lisa: Clearly, the industry should have taken action years ago. That said, the food industry was very engaged in preparing the market for GMOs in the 1990s, but the issue proved latent with consumers. It was a case of bad timing. Industry attention lagged about the same time that trust in institutions began to fall so precipitously. Then industry attempts to fight labeling only energized activists, making Big Food the Big Bad Guys.

Hopefully, this new transparency will both benefit consumers and boost their trust in food brands.

This article is a part of MSLGROUP’s report The Future of Food Communications: Winning Share of Mouth in the Conversation Age.

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