It has been more than a decade since genetically modified organisms (GMOs) became a hot topic in the food industry. After a few years in the spotlight, the controversy appeared to dissipate. The number of GM crops proliferated, and US consumers seemed to accept this new food source. As a result, the US Department of Agriculture in 2009 estimated that 93% of soy, 86% of corn and 90% of canola grown in the US is genetically engineered (GE). Additionally, the government organization estimated that more than 80% of packaged foods contain GMOs.

But recent growth of the organic and allergen-free food sectors combined with a demand for cleaner labels and a shift toward local shopping suggest that consumers may not be as fond of GE food as once assumed. According to a recent MSNBC online poll, 96% of the 40,000 shoppers who voiced their opinion think GM foods should be labeled, which is not currently required by federal regulations. Furthermore, in a 2010 CBS News/
New York Timespoll, 53% of respondents stated that they would not buy GE food.

“GE products have been banned or regulated in more than 30 countries,” said Aimee Sands, marketing director, Annie’s, Inc., Berkeley, CA, a manufacturer of organic and natural baked goods and snacks. “In the US, the issue has gained momentum and consumer scrutiny because of media coverage around the deregulation of GE alfalfa and the introduction of GE salmon.” Ms. Sands went on to say that many consumers may not know the level of GMOs in their food because of the lack of regulation when it comes to food labels; however, as consumer awareness grows, so may the demand for fewer GMOs.

Through theNon-GMO Project, an initiative of the North American organic and natural product industry, efforts are under way to create both a standardized definition of non-GMO and a third-party verification process. Participation in the verification process is voluntary, and companies that meet the rigorous ingredient-testing requirements have the option of applying the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal to their products. According to the organization’s website, the seal gives North American consumers “access to clearly labeled non-GMO food and products.”

Because of the prevalence of GM crops, the biggest challenge for organic and natural food manufacturers is finding qualified, domestic non-GM ingredients suppliers. “As a supplier of sunflower seeds to the baking and snack industries, the topic is essentially a non-issue to us because we are a non-GMO item in the first place,” said Bruce Fjelde, sales manager, human food, CHS Sunflower, Grandin, ND. “However, in addition to providing proof of our kosher certification status and allergen statements for our food safety audits, we must also provide a GMO statement. Additionally, our customers are becoming more demanding in their requests for non-GMO and allergen statements. I can only assume this is because their customers want to know what is in the foods they are buying.”