USFRA to ramp up its food company outreach on GMOs

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 27, 2016 - If you run a food company and are looking at ways to phase out genetically modified foods in your product line, there's a good chance a group of producers would like to chat.

The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance announced a new “Straight Talk” campaign on Thursday, hoping to “engage the food industry in a dialogue on sustainable agriculture production.” The campaign comes after last week's message to Dannon expressing concern over a pledge to eliminate GMO feed from some of the animals that produce its dairy products, an unusually blunt move for USFRA.

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“This is a different approach for us, but from an agricultural standpoint, we can't sit back anymore and let this happen,” Randy Mooney, the chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation, said on a call with reporters. “When something is out there that's outrageously wrong, all of us are going to have to speak up and attack it.”

Dannon is one of several companies that have made corporate pledges relating to GMO ingredients. The Hershey Company has switched away from using genetically modified sugar beets in favor of non-GMO sugar cane. Campbell Soup, Mars Inc., General Mills Inc. and The Kellogg Co. announced plans to voluntarily label products with genetically modified ingredients as Congress struggled to break an impasse on a GMO labeling bill that eventually passed in July.

USFRA CEO Randy Krotz didn't go into specifics on which companies will be approached through the campaign, but there is a list of “a dozen food companies that we are very, very focused on” and that “the list would not surprise you at all.”

What's more, Krotz said he hopes to see the more public approach taken with Dannon avoided in this campaign, but it remains an option in USFRA's playbook.

“We're really hopeful we don't get to that point again,” Krotz said of last week's letter to Dannon. “We want to work collaboratively with the food industry, and the last thing we want to do is in any way challenge them like we've had to here. That's just not what agriculture is about, and we'd really rather not have to do this again.”

“We will call folks out, but we want to do it respectfully,” he added. “We want to have a respectful conversation, and hopefully we won't get to that point.”

Despite USFRA's best efforts, Dannon appears to be sticking to its guns on the so-called “Dannon Pledge” that started the conversation in the first place. Last week, the company called USFRA's letter “divisive and misinformed,” citing a “growing consumer preference for non-GMO ingredients and food in the U.S.”

Today, a Dannon release touted a two-day forum with the company and the producers who supply it. The release made it clear both “Dannon and its farmer partners” are pursuing the “changes in sustainable agriculture practices.”

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“We believe it is possible to combine non-GMO crops and sustainable agriculture building on farmers' expertise and practices, always being mindful about state-of-the-art agronomic science,” Mariano Lozano, CEO of The Dannon Company, said in the release. The company also noted that some products will continue to be made with GMO ingredients, “as it is our belief that the currently approved GMOs are safe.”

Simply stated, NMPF's Mooney doesn't think Dannon can meet its goal to eliminate GMO feed from some of its product lines “in a sustainable way.” Furthermore, he said companies making corporate pledges on sustainability should do some “internal analysis” about what role some of those goals might have on feeding a growing population.

“At some point, don't we have the social responsibility in this country - whether we're a big marketing company or whether we're farmers - that we actually tell the truth about what's going on in science?” Mooney asked. “Profits are great. Companies like Dannon and others have to have profits, but there's also a social responsibility here that we've got to look at to maintain a safe and secure food supply that's affordable to everybody.”

Krotz said the campaign will be “at least a year-long effort.”

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