Non-G.M.O. category may need to tell its story better

by Jeff Gelski
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BELLEVUE, WASH. — Sales of food and beverage products with non-bioengineered ingredients might be increasing, but companies promoting them could explain the category better. Consumers may wish to know why they are buying the products and how they can be sure the products are free of bioengineered ingredients, also called genetically modified organisms, according to The Hartman Group, which is based in Bellevue and provides consultation on consumer trends and culture.

“Non-G.M.O.” labeling on retail products is inconsistent and confusing, according to The Hartman Group.

“Because the federal government does not regulate non-G.M.O. labels, it is essentially a voluntary process with all the unevenness one would expect from such an effort,” The Hartman Group said in the June 3 issue of its hartbeat newsletter.

Non-G.M.O. labels tend to appear on both natural products and certified organic products. While certified organic products are not allowed to have bioengineered ingredients, not all certified organic products carry non-G.M.O. labels. Non-G.M.O. labels also appear on products that contain ingredients never linked to bioengineered agriculture such as peanut oil and olive oil.

Consumption of bioengineered ingredients mostly comes via corn, soy, oils (canola, cottonseed) and beet sugar in products. Bioengineered seeds also exist for other U.S. crops such as potatoes, squash and tomatoes.

The Hartman Group research finds many otherwise concerned consumers have little knowledge about which products contain bioengineered ingredients and which crops are heavily bioengineered-based in the United States. Also, individual processed food Universal Product Codes (UPCs) may use obscure byproducts of corn, soy and cotton unbeknownst to consumers.

“People with a deeply ingrained habit of deconstructing ingredient panels are most likely to take the extra step to figure all of this out,” The Hartman Group said. “The heavily concealed nature of non-G.M.O. ingredient tracings combined with the confusing label situation is a major stumbling block to activating the growing levels of avoidance desire.”

According to The Hartman Group’s “2013 Health and Wellness Report,” 33% of consumers reported they intentionally avoid genetically modified ingredients, which was up from 15% in 2007.

“Given the labeling inconsistency, this is probably a high reading of actual avoidance behavior,” The Hartman Group said.

The Hartman Group said narratives about the danger of bioengineered ingredients currently focus on the environment and chemical residue.

“The spread of new purity markers in food culture is not new, but, when they have spread before, they have done so largely on the basis of compelling narratives that create consumer fear and, in turn, reliable avoidance,” The Hartman Group said. “This continues to work for organic via ‘the dirty dozen’ chemical narrative in produce and the ‘hormones and early puberty’ narrative in dairy.

“Yet, when The Hartman Group interviewed organic consumers about the threat of G.M.O.s, they could not produce a clear narrative of a health consequence. This is because, in part, no one is out there providing a strong narrative, and because it is not springing up at the heart of the natural foods movement. The narratives to support G.M.O. avoidance are more anti-corporate or environmentalist. These kinds of narratives did not work well for the organic movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and they won’t, by themselves, accelerate consumer demand quickly for non-G.M.O.s today either.”

The Hartman Group is conducting new research on the non-bioengineered category and plans to publish a report.
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