Tracking the Non-GMO Trend
Vermont law a catalyst for non-GMO labeling nationwide
By Kathleen Furore
Vermont might be a very small state, but the law it passed in 2014 requiring food companies to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on their products is having a very big impact on the food and beverage industry.
On March 23, ConAgra Foods joined a growing list of food companies—Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kellogg and Mars among them—to announce plans to use labels that disclose the presence of GMOs in the products they distribute nationwide. The move was in response to that law, which will take effect July 1.
“We have seen many brands seeking to verify cheese and meat products, in large part because consumers want to ensure that the animal products they consume are from animals not being fed GMOs.
Animal feed is frequently made from ingredients that have a high risk of being GMO, including corn, soy, and canola.”
— Courtney Pineau, associate director, the Non-GMO Project
Non-GMO By the Numbers
Whether or not food manufacturers agree with the law, or with the continued push to eliminate GMOs, it is clear consumers are very concerned about the presence of GMOs in the products they purchase, according to Courtney Pineau, associate director of the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building the non-GMO food supply, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices.
“ConAgra Foods will begin adding labels to products nationwide by July 2016, to meet Vermont’s GMO labeling requirements,” the company explained in a statement on its website. “We stand behind the health and safety of all of our products, including those with genetically modified ingredients, and believe consumers should be informed as to what’s in their food. But addressing state-by-state labeling requirements adds significant complications and costs for food companies.”
“A Nielson study done in January 2015 showed that 80 percent of consumers would pay more for products labeled ‘non-GMO’, and an ABC News report in June 2014 showed that 93 percent of consumers support mandatory GMO labeling.”
— Courtney Pineau, associate director, the Non-GMO Project
The industry appears to be listening; more and more companies are committing to becoming GMO-free.
“We have definitely seen an increase in companies seeking Non-GMO Project Verification for their products,” Pineau reports. “According to SPINS, the Non-GMO Project Verified seal is one of the fastest growing labels in the natural industry. From Q1 2014 to Q1 2015 the growth rate across all Non-GMO Project Verified products was 11.90 percent, and there are now over 34,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products. This growth is driven by increased consumer demand for transparency in labeling.”
Ken Roseboro, editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, a monthly news magazine that tracks organic and non-GMO food trends, concurs.
“There has been tremendous growth in the number of companies getting products non-GMO verified or making non-GMO claims on their products,” Roseboro says. “According to Mintel, 15.7 percent of new US food/beverage products made non-GMO claims in 2015.”
The Meat and Cheese Connection
While most of the food giants getting press for committing to non-GMO labeling are not in the deli meat and cheese business, those categories are not immune from the non-GMO movement.
In fact, an increasing numbers of companies that manufacture those products are jumping on the bandwagon.
“We have seen many brands seeking to verify cheese and meat products, in large part because consumers want to ensure that the animal products they consume are from animals not being fed GMOs,” Pineau says. “Animal feed is frequently made from ingredients that have a high risk of being GMO, including corn, soy, and canola.”
Rumiano Cheese Company in Crescent City, Calif., and Applegate in Bridgewater, N.J. are two companies dedicated to eliminating GMOs from the cheeses and meats they manufacture.
Rumiano, in fact, became the first Non-GMO Project Verified organic cheese company in the world in 2011.
“Our manufacturing plant in Crescent City was the leader on this project, and worked very hard with the dairies to gain this attribute,” recalls Owen Rumiano, owner of Rumiano Cheese. “The decision was based on the fact that we had an organic product that was very high quality, thanks to the milk sheds in Del Norte and Humboldt counties, and this secondary verification was another step in confirming that idea [about the quality of the cheese]. Rumiano Cheese wants to make a quality product with quality ingredients and the fact that we were able to get Non-GMO Project Verification was a testament to the nature of these dairies.”
Rumiano works with 27 dairies, eight of them currently Non-GMO Project Verified.
For Applegate, the decision to pursue a non-GMO path was a natural step, given the company’s longstanding commitment to sustainability.
“For 28 years, Applegate has been a pioneer in sustainable meat, propelling change on important issues such as nitrates, organics, and antibiotics,” a letter to Applegate customers posted on the company’s website says. “That’s why we want to stay ahead of the curve on GMOs…we have been working diligently over the past couple of years to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from our products.”
The company confirmed that commitment when it was acquired by Hormel in May 2015.
“Applegate will continue to support labeling and transparency on genetically engineered foods, limiting the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and advocating for the advancement of humane standards," Gina Asoudegan, Applegate's Senior Director of Mission, said in a press release about the acquisition. "As a company, Applegate will continue to lead the way in searching for solutions on issues like non-GMO feed for naturally raised livestock and raising the bar on animal welfare.”
As of July 2015, all Applegate products were free from genetically modified ingredients.
While a non-GMO label isn’t the only feature driving health-conscious shoppers to put products in their baskets, it is helping drive sales in some market segments.
“Often we receive customer feedback emails, comments on Facebook, even hand-written letters sharing the appreciation some customers have for the brand and what it offers,” Rumiano reports. “The Non-GMO Project Verification seems to still be a fairly niche market, and although it is a great seal it is not our only selling point. More than not we find that people are just happy to have a quality ‘everyday’ cheese they feel comfortable feeding to their children, and enjoy eating. There are always customers that truly appreciate our product based on the fact that it is Non-GMO Project Verified, as well, and we love hearing from them, too!”
Roseboro firmly believes it would behoove deli meat and cheese producers to explore ways to add non-GMO items to their product lines.
Consumers Response = Competitive Advantage
“The non-GMO trend is growing fast and even restaurants are making non-GMO claims,” he says. “Non-GMO is one of the fastest growing food labeling claims and more and more consumers are looking for non-GMO products as evidenced by the fast growth.”
Pineau agrees. “With this kind of consumer support,” she concludes, “having products that are Non-GMO Project Verified can definitely give brands a competitive edge.”
Wondering how many meat and cheese companies are Non-GMO Project Verified? You can find a list of companies at www.nongmoproject.org/find-non-gmo/search-participating-products. And to learn more about the verification process, visit www.nongmoproject.org/product-verification
So What Are GMOs?
GMOs (or genetically modified organisms) are organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.
High-risk crops include alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, zucchini and yellow summer squash.
Common ingredients derived from GMO risk crops include amino acids, aspartame, ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, vitamin C, citric acid, sodium citrate, ethanol, flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactic acid, maltodextrins, molasses, monosodium glutamate, sucrose, textured vegetable protein (TVP), xanthan gum, vitamins, yeast products.
—Source: The Non-GMO Project www.nongmoproject.org
THE NON-GMO ADVANTAGE:
Retailers Move to Limit Products with GMOs
Back in 2010, the issue of GMOs was not the front-page topic it has become today.
But that didn’t stop San Diego-based Jimbo’s…Naturally!, a food retailer in San Diego County, from pursuing a path toward becoming GMO-free.
“At that time, [Owner] Jimbo [Someck] realized GMOs were one of the biggest, if not the biggest issue, facing the natural foods industry,” Kelly Hartford, director of marketing for Jimbo’s, which now has five locations in San Diego County, recalls. “He recognized it was especially important for retailers to work together in order to educate consumers.”
Someck’s vision was the genesis of Non-GMO Day, first celebrated on October 10, 2010.
“The idea was to encourage all retailers to first and foremost educate their customers about GMOs,” Hartford explains. October has since become the official Non-GMO Month— the Non-GMO Project‘s largest outreach campaign.
A Growing Movement
Today, while not GMO-free, Jimbo’s…Naturally! prohibits ingredients that are most likely to contain GMOs. As detailed on their website, they will not accept any new items with non-organic corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, or Hawaiian papaya unless the Non-GMO Project certifies that item as GMO-free.
Jimbo’s…Naturally! is just one company on a growing roster of retailers carrying and promoting non-GMO products.
Green Valley Marketplace, a full service, conventional grocer with locations in Elkridge and Arnold, Md., is a more recent addition to that roster.
“Over the last two years, we have made a serious effort to provide a large assortment of organic, non-GMO and other holistic options for our customers,” says Judy Battaglia, Green Valley's natural, organic, non-GMO, gluten-free manager. “We have put a huge investment in the non-GMO area and in making sure these options are available to our customers at affordable prices.”
Promoting Non-GMO Products
Consumer demand is driving savvy retailers to shine a brighter spotlight on non-GMO products.
To help educate customers, Hartford says Jimbo’s…Naturally! identifies Non-GMO Verified products throughout the store via shelf tags and shelf talkers. “Jimbo’s…Naturally! also offers informational brochures on the subject. We have hosted free movie screenings and forums as well,” she adds.
The promotional approach is much the same at Green Valley Marketplace.
“Each week we highlight several non-GMO items in our print ad with information on the product itself,” Battaglia says. “In addition, we do in-store tastings/demos, informational sheets, online information and in-store classes.”
While availability of non-GMO deli meats and cheeses isn’t as robust as products in other categories, retailers do have options when it comes to sourcing non-GMO items in the deli.
Eddie Garcia, director of operations for Jimbo’s…Naturally!, says the company offers Rumiano brand cheeses, which are Non-GMO Project Verified; a line of Non-GMO Project Verified cheese alternatives from Follow Your Heart; plus a line of Non-GMO Project Verified meat alternatives from Lightlife and Tofurky.
“In October of 2015, Jimbo’s…Naturally! introduced Creekstone Farms Non-GMO Verified Black Angus Beef making Jimbo’s…Naturally! the first retailer in California to offer an extensive line of Non-GMO Verified Black Angus steaks, roasts and ground beef,” Garcia adds. “We also feature Beeler’s Pork, and Rosie, Rocky Jr. and Smart Chicken Poultry, which all offer Non-GMO Verified products.”
“Every week we see more and more customers looking for non-GMO options, so we try to stay on top of new products in the market,” Green Valley’s Battaglia notes.