SmartLabel QR codes, developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, tell consumers about the presence of allergens and other ingredient matters.
Dichotomy of belief

How did the US arrive at mandatory GMO labeling?

Once upon a time, the debate about GMOs in food was about safety. FDA affirmed, based on science, that such foods were safe to eat and posed no more risk than conventional foods. Such findings were on the mind of Dean Folkvord, CEO, Wheat Montana Farms and Bakery, Three Forks, MT, when he spoke during a panel discussion at BakingTech 2017, the annual technical conference of the American Society of Baking (ASB). “There is no scientific data that says GMOs are less safe than non-GMOs,” he said. Even so, his company educates consumers on its website about how its baked goods are non-GMO and answers frequently asked questions about its production and farming techniques.

“People think wheat is a genetically modified organism, even though it is not,” Mr. Folkvord said. “People still think that is the case, so it’s all about how we respond.” The bakery labels all of its products with a Non-GMO Project verified icon.

In the realm of public opinion, food companies and their marketing departments must deal with both perception and reality. “If the consumer believes it, then it’s true whether it’s scientifically true or not,” said Todd Wallin, president of Ellison Bakery, Fort Wayne, IN, during the same panel. “They’re not going to buy a product if they are concerned about GMOs, and if they are, then you better have a product that is labeled as Non-GMO Project verified.”

With the Washington state ballot initiative and labeling laws that spread from Vermont throughout New England, the issue of GMOs in food changed into a “right to know” matter.

Bioengineered ingredients have become the fastest growing food concern as consumers increasingly prefer foods perceived as authentic and real, according to The NPD Group. News coverage and social media may be fueling these fears, noted Darren Seifer, an NPD food and beverage industry analyst. “With increasing awareness and concern, consumers would benefit hearing from food manufacturers the reasons why they use GMOs and how their use benefits their customers,” he said.

Mr. Wallin observed, “In a consumer climate where people don’t trust media or even good science, there are lots of opportunities for us to stay ahead of the curve.”

Food companies should take such consumer attitudes seriously in how they address GMOs and their labeling. “What is actually GMO and what is not GMO?” asked Julie Nargang, vice-president of marketing, Azteca Foods, Chicago, during the ASB panel. “It’s our responsibility to help educate the consumer, and that will help with our sales.”

In the meantime, more food manufacturers than ever voluntarily label their goods as non-GMO or GMO-free. One need only look at the thousands of food products verified by The Non-GMO Project as free of bioengineered components. As of press time, it listed 2,217 items in the bread and baked goods category, plus 1,305 cereal and breakfast foods. And its count of wholesale ingredients came to 3,869 items.

In 2015, 15.7% of new US food and beverage products made non-GMO claims vs. 2.8% in 2012, according to Lynn Dornblaser, director, innovation and insight at Mintel, a market research firm.

Washington politics may have put rulemaking for mandatory GMO labeling on hold temporarily, but there’s nothing transitory about efforts by bakers and snack food producers to ramp up their voluntary disclosure of the absence of such components. Assurance of “no GMOs” is what the public wants, and it’s what the public is getting at an increasing pace.