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Food Fight: Food Companies Wrestle with GMO Perceptions

June 25, 2014
General Mills made headline news when it announced it would re-label its original Cheerios and source the cereal’s tiny amount of sugar and corn starch from non-GMO crops.

Some in the industry accused General Mills of caving into consumer paranoia about GMOs in foods, a new trend in the food manufacturing and retail arenas.

Following General Mill’s example with Cheerios, Post did the same for its Grape-Nuts cereal, and Smart Balance for its butter-like spreads. Whole Foods announced last Spring its intention to label all of its GMO foods by 2018. Chipotle has vowed to use non-GM ingredients “when possible,” while touting its commitment to “food with integrity” in high-profile viral videos and social media campaigns that condemn mainstream agriculture.

Wegmans said they received 1,000 questions about GMOs from customers in a year – not significant out of 100,000 customer comments – but it got Wegman’s attention and prompted a fact-based consumer education campaign.

Most food companies accept the safety of GMO foods as scientific fact. But they have differing views on whether or not such products should carry a specific label. And biotech opponents have capitalized on the dilemma.

While positioned as a consumer right-to-know issue, advocates of biotech food labeling are using the political process to change consumers’ buying habits, and food companies are starting to play along.

GMO Inside, for example, claimed victory for the Cheerios decision and urged General Mills to remove GMOs from its other varieties of Cheerios, especially Honey Nut Cheerios – the company’s and the nation’s #1 breakfast cereal.

But most food companies and retailers take such action for marketing reasons – to appeal to its customer base – not to take a political position on the labeling debate.

Just as General Mills did with Cheerios, Wegmans defended the safety of GMO foods. Wegmans also said, while they believe in consumer choice, if a customer wants to avoid GMOs, the best option is certified organic or products verified by the non-GMO project.

Since sales are the ultimate motivator, what has been the result of such actions?

After removing GMOs from Cheerios, General Mills said the effort failed to improve the brand’s performance and that it had no plans to reformulate additional products without GMOs.

Chipotle aims to be completely GMO-free by year’s end, but the restaurant chain also announced it will raise prices since GM ingredients tend to be cheaper.

Sometimes a marketing switch changes more than sales and pricing. Dr. Wayne Parrott, professor of crop science at the University of Georgia, explains how nutrition may be affected too. Non-GMO Grape Nuts no longer include Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin). Additionally, non-GMO Cheerios no longer have Riboflavin on the ingredients list (the old version had 25 percent of the daily value in a 28g serving while the new version has 2 percent of the daily value).

While the biotechnology industry supports the voluntary labeling of food products – as long as those labels don’t make a health or safety claim – such action may only serve to raise food costs, diminish nutritional content and embolden the anti-biotech community.