Market View: If GMOs Are Harmless, Why Remove Them?

March 4, 2014
In pursuing one niche of consumers, be careful you don’t alienate others.

Time magazine recently devoted a full two pages on Cheerios “Ditching GMOs.” I was curious how consumers would interpret this action, which was taken only on the original formula Cheerios. (quick aside, Food Processing posted a news item on the topic as well: Cheerios Now GMO Free)

Would consumers think GMOs (genetically modified organisms, or genetically engineered ingredients) must be bad because General Mills removed them from the iconic Cheerios? Or would they question if all of the other General Mills products are now inferior to the GMO-free products? How would this affect sales of the other Cheerios brands, which apparently still have some genetically engineered ingredients?

I'm not sure I really understand the scientific positives and negatives of GMOs. However Time magazine quotes an NPD survey as reporting 20 percent of consumers say they are very or extremely concerned about genetically modified foods -- which is up from 10 percent in 2002. What isn't clear in the article is the exact wording of the survey question.

In the past I have found wording to be critical to interpreting the results of surveys. For example the survey may have said, "Are you concerned about scientists changing the genetic makeup of the foods you eat?” Or did the survey say, “Are you concerned about eating vegetables that have the genes of a frog?” Equally important, they don't report the extent to which those who were surveyed had any prior knowledge of GMOs.

They also quote a General Mills vice president as saying, "We did it because we think consumers might embrace it.” I suspect that if I was on the General Mills board of directors, I would be asking the question, “You suspect consumers would accept this?” If I were putting the rest of my product line in some level of jeopardy, I would like to be damn sure that many of General Mills consumers would accept this change.

My concern is not simply about GMOs. It is about continuing a perception that certain foods or ingredients may be bad for you, or at least bad enough that the company would take it out of some of its products, but not out of all of its products. If GMOs are so bad, then no General Mills cereal should have them. If they're not so bad, why have such a huge public relations campaign claiming you're taking them out?

Time magazine also says General Mills thinks GMO ingredients do not pose a health risk. I might ask, along with millions of other consumers, then why take them out? Do consumers think they are taking them out because they don't taste good? I think the only logical conclusion consumers will reach is GMOs must be a health risk.

I've seen this situation before. A bakery in the Philadelphia region created a new snack product without all of the perceived-to-be “bad” ingredients. It named this new product “Sensables.” The problem of course is that by implication the remainder of the product line was “not sensible.” I wanted to ask the management the extent to which they felt the new product may have hurt the remainder of the product line, but unfortunately the company went out of business before I could ask.

I believe the food industry must be more aggressive about ingredients. Why does the primary voice I hear in the media come from people who purport to represent consumers’ interests? We need to make the food industry’s voice louder and prouder.

I've always thought there is a rather easy solution to the issues of GMOs, rBST (Recombinant bovine somatotropin, or hormones injected into milk cows), etc. It's very innovative so you may want to write this down: Let the consumers decide through their purchase behavior. However make sure they have all the information.

Louder and prouder presumes the company subscribes to the concept of food labeling as well. I do. I don't think we as an industry should be against telling people what's in the food they buy. This also means that the food industry should take a positive stance on those ingredients they believe in. In dealing with consumers, I sometimes think the food industry takes the position of Colonel Nathan Jessup (in A Few Good Men): “You can’t handle the truth.”

While I claim to be a food marketer, I was trained as a scientist and worked for many years in the nutrition area. But I have watched the food industry rob Peter to pay Paul. I understand the need to come up with new products and to revitalize existing products. But I'm concerned the search for “new and better” can put the remainder of the products we make at risk. When the food industry reacts to a minority of loud consumers, it can put other products in a negative position.

Consumers may or may not want to avoid GMOs, but it is our job as food marketers to make sure they have the information they need to make an informed decision. Like it or not, they will decide what they think is best for them, and we can either participate in forming that judgment or we can let all the other voices mold their opinions.

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