Consultants to Big Food: Get Ready for GMO Labeling

New polling finds Americans increasingly concerned about genetically engineered food.

(Design by Lauren Wade)

Feb 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Trade groups for Monsanto, PepsiCo, and other major food businesses are forming an alliance dubbed the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food to create one national standard for GMO labeling and oppose efforts in various states that are pushing for better consumer information. These inventors and users of genetically modified ingredients say they want a federal law that preempts state legislation that has been brought by anti-GMO activists, and has resulted in costly ballot fights in several states.

Regardless of who wins the labeling race—whether the eventual laws hold industry accountable in the eyes of activists or protect biotech via regulations they're amenable to—one of the leading market research companies says it's time for food companies to prepare for a post-GMO labeling world.

A new survey of Americans on their attitudes toward GMOs by the NPD Group found that more of us than ever are concerned about genetically engineered foods, and its analysts are preparing food and beverage companies for the eventuality of labeling laws. While the full report was not released to TakePart because it is intended solely for use by food companies, Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst and author of the report, “Gauging GMO Awareness and Impact,” shared a few of the more interesting findings.

For one, awareness of G.E. foods is rising. More than a quarter of American adults have heard "a great deal” or “quite a lot” about GMOs. Half of adults have some concern about GMOs in their food, and 20 percent said they are “very/extremely concerned” about GMOs—up from 15 percent in 2011. The growth in concern over GMOs is outpacing that of other food dangers, such as E. coli, salmonella, and high-fructose corn syrup, according to the report. Seifer says the upward trajectory in GMO awareness and concern should serve as a message to the food industry—despite the high-profile labeling defeats in California and Washington.

“We don’t think the food industry should rest on its laurels and say this is a done deal, this is over,” he says. “Even though these ballot measures failed, I would still recommend that they get ready for some kind of labeling regulation. We’re saying get ready for it and know the GMO content of your food and beverages.”

Labeling laws could come in one of two ways. A single state could pass a law, “causing a ripple effect throughout the whole industry,” as Seifer put it. That's just what the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food is hoping to avoid. Connecticut and Maine have already passed G.E. labeling legislation, and Alaska now requires the labeling of G.E. fish. (As many as 30 states could introduce labeling legislation in the 2014 session, according to the Center for Food Safety.)

Labeling requirements could also come from the federal government—the avenue food and biotech companies are now pushing for.

But efforts on the national scale started well before the founding of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Peter DeFazio have introduced legislation that would require labeling G.E. foods at the federal level, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in 2012 that “maybe it’s time to think about [GMO labeling] from a national perspective.”

No matter which route the labeling laws take, the report suggests that advocates need to work a little harder to inform the average consumer what GMOs are—and what they aren’t. NPD found that 44 percent of primary grocery shoppers believe genetically modified foods have some benefit. And Seifer says that when consumers were asked to define GMOs, “I don’t know” was a frequent answer.

“They’re hearing about it through blogs and other media,” he says. “A lot of the press around it has been very negative. Consumers are getting bombarded on both sides of this thing.”

Still, Seifer sees mounting pressure at the state and national level to regulate GMOs, pressure that he tells NPD’s clients—which include the major food and beverage companies—will lead to labeling laws. But will they listen?

It depends on the company, he says. Whole Foods, on one hand, has set out to label all G.E. products in its stores by 2018. Other companies have not taken such bold steps. Still others, until recently, appeared to be fighting labeling initiatives at every turn. But with people like Seifer telling companies to prepare for labeling, and the coalition pushing for it, "winning" the debate will likely hinge on the fine print of whatever law or laws get passed. In the meantime? Consumers can vote with their wallets.