Knowing Your ABCs on GMOs

What may have one time sounded like an obscure term plucked out of a scientific journal, genetically modified organisms –  also known as GMOs or biotech crops – has is a prominent topic in the mainstream media and in the halls of food companies. Discussion has focused on state initiatives that would require labeling food with genetically-modified ingredients — such as such as those that were defeated in California and Washington but passed in Connecticut and Maine — and company actions. You might recall last March when retail giant Whole Foods announced all products containing GMOs in its U.S. and Canadian stores would be labeled by 2018. This led to an announcement that the retailer would stop selling Chobani yogurt – months after the Greek yogurt manufacturer was targeted by an anti-GMO group for marketing its products as “natural” (activists felt this label was misleading because many of the cows that supply milk to Chobani eat grains that come from GM seeds). And just a couple of weeks ago General Mills announced its Original Cheerios (yellow box) will soon be made with all non-GM ingredients.

As a backdrop to all of these activities, GMOs have been extensively reviewed by government and scientific bodies around the world. These entities – which include the World Health Organization, the European Food Safety Agency, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the USDA, the FDA and the EPA – have determined the foods produced from genetically modified seeds are safe. 2014 will be chockfull of moments when GM conversations are likely to spike, including GMOs being considered as part of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, more state ballot initiatives, and continued debate around national standards for GMO and natural claims/labeling. Social media will continue to be a conduit for conversation and an enabler of movements. We expect activists, advocates and Food eVangelists to continue to be vocal on the issue, in some cases prompting consumers to seek more information.

The GMO issue can be confusing for many brands and organizations. Food companies of all sizes and perspectives would be wise to determine their own point of view on GMOs and what steps, if any, they should take now to make that point of view accessible to their consumers and others. It is particularly smart to have these conversations before the pressures of advocacy groups or new regulations are at a company’s doorstep.

While this is not a one-size-fits-all issue, we do recommend every company consider the following steps:

  • Get smart. Ensure your teams fully understand the science and regulatory landscape around GMOs and GMO labeling.
  • Know what your customers and stakeholders expect. The loudest voices pushing for non-GM options may not be the people who are buying your products, but they may have your consumers’ or customers’ ears.
  • Be transparent. Make your story around ingredient sourcing and production practices accessible. Whatever your position, be prepared to be transparent about your ingredient decisions, why you made them and why you are confident that all of your products are safe.
  • Shore up sourcing and stand behind your ingredients. Track your supply chain and make sure you can answer questions as it relates to your brand’s use of ingredients, including those sourced from biotech crops. Share your thinking with your consumers and welcome the dialogue, but stand by whatever your position is.
  • Support choice in the marketplace. Consumers have a lot of choices and that’s a good thing. The onus is on you to provide them with the information consumers need to make decisions that are right for them and their families. They want information and will reward companies for communicating with them directly.

Ketchum’s proprietary consumer research – Food 2020 – validates that active consumers will continue to demand information and drive change in the food industry.  Have you received information from a friend or been part of a conversation on this topic?  If not, don’t be surprised if it happens soon.

Kim is a partner and managing director of Ketchum’s Food Agriculture & Ingredient industry group. She loves all things food – from the farms it is grown or raised on to her favorite spot, her kitchen. She has helped food producers and food makers tell their stories for a better part of her 30-year career. She really should have been a scientist, and is grateful to food for filling her scientific curiosity – biology, sociology, political science, food technology, behavioral science, economics, oh my!