WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2014 – State ballot initiatives to mandate labeling food products made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) will re-appear this fall in Colorado and Oregon. As food makers and their trade groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, amass funds to fight the initiatives that they say would raise costs, their member companies are also trying to get a better read on consumer’s attitudes about the topic.
According to a survey of GMO knowledge commissioned by Charleston Orwig, consumers are confused and conflicted about GMO foods and the companies behind them. Although they see that GMO seeds can help produce crops in drought-stricken areas, 39 percent of those surveyed said they are concerned about potential health issues related to GMO foods. A turn toward “natural” and organic products is not unnoticed by large food makers, who are investing in the trend while also fighting mandatory GMO labels.
General Mills announced this month it will buy an organic food company for $820 million. Annie's Homegrown, which says its sources its ingredients to avoid GMOs, offers over 145 products and has over 35,000 retail locations in the U.S. and Canada. General Mills is eager to add Annie’s to its brand family, especially since Annie’s made $204 million in sales last year, a 20 percent jump from 2013.
"Consumers know and trust the Annie's brand,” Jeff Harmening, executive VP for U.S. retail at General Mills, said in a statement. “Annie's consumers are passionate about the brand, and we're committed to maintaining the great tasting products that Annie's consumers love and trust."
Anna Lappé, a sustainable food activist and the founder of the Small Planet Institute, said the acquisition may be viewed differently by organic food enthusiasts. While some are glad Annie’s products will reach more consumers, others are doubtful that the brand will stay true to its roots under General Mills, one of the world’s largest food makers, which markets many processed foods made with GMO ingredients.
Datassential's Maeve Webster, who helped conduct and analyze the Charleston Orwig research, said consumer responses show that “GMO is a topic that is widely discussed but little understood.” She pointed out that half of the 1,000 consumers in the survey said they do not know what food items are genetically modified.
More than 75 percent of the survey respondents believe they have some understanding of GMOs beyond basic awareness, with 13 percent reporting "very in-depth" understanding, 31 percent "good" understanding and 33 percent "fair."
The 13 percent of consumers who report "very in-depth understanding" of GMOs are least likely to be interested in benefits, are most likely to perceive disadvantages and most interested in a ban at the federal level.
However, 41 percent of those surveyed said they are interested in learning about the potential benefits of GMOs. “Our survey suggests there is opportunity for food-chain marketers to identify and engage with this group of consumers to communicate how they and their families benefit when food is produced using GMOs,” Marcy Tessmann, president of Charleston Orwig, said in a statement.
Notably, 40 percent of consumers surveyed said they are “interested” in GMO retail labels. Additionally, 39 percent agreed that GMOs cause health and physical issues, while 30 percent disagreed.
Lappé said the concerns about GMOs she hears often stem from confusion about the products. “Transparency is the most important aspect,” she said, adding that some consumers felt blindsided when they heard that food companies started including GMO ingredients in products in the 1990s.
Annie’s CEO John Foraker said that General Mills will help distribute the company’s products to a wider audience, but also maintain Annie’s mission “through nourishing foods, honest words and conduct that is considerate and forever kind to the planet.”
"Powerful consumer shifts toward products with simple, organic and natural ingredients from companies that share consumers' core values show no signs of letting up,” Foraker added. “Partnering with a company of General Mills' scale and resources will strengthen our position at the forefront of this trend.”
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