Many in the public are mistrustful of GMOs, worried about the potential safety for humans and for the environment. Others look at food economics and politics and see a powerful process controlled and guided by only a few sources.
The USDA recently fielded comments on the coexistence of GMO and non-GMO crops from farmers across 17 states, primarily in the Midwest. Food & Water Watch, in partnership with the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), released survey results that appeared to confirm what organic farmers have been contending for some time: The risks of GMO contamination have burdened organic and non-GMO farmers with extra work, longer hours and financial insecurity.
Just how extensive is the public concern? A New York Times poll conducted in July 2013 estimated support for mandatory labeling of GM foods as high as 93 percent. However, two recent ballot initiatives to force mandatory labeling of GMO foods, one held in California in November 2012 and one in Washington state the following November, were narrowly defeated. Similar referenda are being discussed in a number of other states.
According to a recent study on GMO awareness and concern among consumers released by NPD Group, about half of U.S. consumers “express some level of concern” about GMOs, although many are uncertain how to describe them. One-third of primary grocery shoppers are willing to pay more for non-GMO foods — a figure that rises to half of consumers who shop at specialty stores.
The public right to know the origin of food seems like a simple and obvious proposition. However, labeling GMOs has become complex. In March 2013, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, announced that by 2018 all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores must be labeled to indicate whether they contain GMOs. Whole Foods Market is a strong supporter of government-mandated labeling of GMO ingredients which would “enable shoppers, retailers and manufacturers to make purchasing decisions that reflect their beliefs."
Also responding to customer demands, Aldi GmbH’s Trader Joe’s chain, Monrovia, Calif., declared that products under the Trader Joe label are sourced from non-GMO ingredients. However, the company stops short of requiring a non-GMO label for all products it sells. The company explains in communications this is “because there are no clear guidelines from the U.S. governmental agencies covering food and beverage labeling.”
Sensing the public mood, many manufacturers are not waiting for guidelines. General Mills Inc., Minneapolis, reformulated original formula Cheerios with non-GMO ingredients. Oats and wheat have always been non-GMO ingredients, so the reformulation required only finding non-GMO sources of sugar and starch. The company does not have plans to follow with other non-GMO products at this time.
Post Foods LLC, St. Louis, announced its iconic Grape Nuts are now sourced with non-GMO ingredients. But it is also noted the new formulas for both cereals are lower in certain vitamins — riboflavin for Cheerios and riboflavin, vitamin A and vitamin D for Grape Nuts.
“Our transition to non-GMO buttery spreads has been in process for several months,” says Stephen Hughes, CEO for Boulder Brands, Paramus, N.J., which makes Glutino, Earth Balance, Level, Evol, Smart Balance and Udi’s Gluten Free. “Consumers are expressing a very strong desire for more transparency about what’s in the foods they’re eating and serving their families. We’re taking this important step to meet that need. We know that, just as important as what is in those foods, is what you take out.
“Making the necessary changes to our ingredient supply chain and manufacturing processes requires a several months-long transition," he continues. "We plan to transition our entire Smart Balance product portfolio to non-GMO, but this is the start of a journey for us. Our peanut butter is already non-GMO. We know it will take some time, but our goal is to work closely with industry leading partners to identify the required resources and assess the conversion of our entire Smart Balance product line to non-GMO.”
Hughes notes that the Earth Balance line always has been made with non-GMO ingredients. Both Udi’s Granola Clusters and Granola Bars along with 15 Glutino products have been verified by the Non-GMO Project.
The Non-GMO Project
“Because we want to be as transparent and accurate as possible for consumers, our seal is not a GMO-free claim, as that is scientifically indefensible,” says Isabel VanDerslice, outreach coordinator for the Non-GMO Project, Bellingham, Wash. The Non-GMO Project is “North America’s only independent verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance.” Its “Non-GMO Project Verified” label indicates the product has met the organization’s standard for GMO avoidance.