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Vermont GMO labeling bill presents packaged food companies with ‘a serious quandary’, says Rabobank analyst

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

Vermont GMO labeling bill presents packaged food companies with ‘a serious quandary’, says Rabobank analyst

Related tags: Genetically modified organism

As anti-GMO activists celebrated their first major victory in Vermont this week with the passage of GMO labeling bill H112, the GMA said it would mount a legal challenge within weeks. But while big food companies may well win the courtroom battle ahead, they are losing the battle to win hearts and minds, says one market watcher.

And this fight is just as important if you are a big food company wondering how to respond to this whole debate, said Rabobank global senior analyst Nicholas Fereday, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as Vermont governor Peter Shumlin signed GMO labeling bill H112 into law.

If big food brands start to lose at the checkout and in the court of public opinion, they may feel compelled to reformulate some products, regardless of what is happening in the courts, said Fereday.

The Pro-GMO crowd needs to find a way to speak to consumers in a language and with a message they understand that addresses their concerns with GMOs.”

Hearts and minds

And current strategies are not working with influential consumer groups, added Fereday. Whatever the objective merits of the argument, he said, “The ‘We need to feed 9 billion by 2050’ argument may play well to the Davos crowd but does not appear to be moving the needle for key trendsetters: Millennials, mommy bloggers and foodies.

“To start a conversation it helps if you are speaking the same language.”

Major packaged food companies, meanwhile, now find themselves in “a serious quandary​”, he said: “With just 0.2% of the US population do they simply write off Vermont and its $750m packaged food market?

“Alternatively, do they label for this state only? Or do they conclude the writing is on the wall and opt to reformulate with non-GMO ingredients as General Mills has already done for [Original] Cheerios?

Nick Fereday: 'The ‘We need to feed 9 billion by 2050’ argument does not appear to be moving the needle for key trendsetters: Millennials, mommy bloggers and foodies.'

“Whatever their decision, expect higher costs for the consumer as labeling and certification all come with a price tag. So far, the only clear winners are the organic food movement, and soon, the lawyers.”

PR strategy of fighting labeling has backfired

One key problem for the food industry - as Packaged Facts remarked in a recent report - is that the GM debate has now “passed beyond being a reasonable discussion of scientific data into a public relations battle between two sides trying to control a narrative.”

Indeed, passions are very high on both sides, with supporters of H112 equating the fight for GMO labeling with the fight for same sex marriage equality and women’s suffrage in a call with reporters on Thursday, and opponents arguing that many of the scientific ‘facts’ presented by anti-GMO activists are not supported by any credible evidence (read Dr Wayne Parrott's comments at the bottom of this article HERE​). Both sides accuse the other of peddling lies.

Consumer survey data meanwhile, suggests growing concern about GMOs and greater self-reported knowledge of the issues surrounding GM crops, even if an objective analysis might prove consumers are as clueless as ever about the detailed arguments on both sides, Natural Marketing Institute president Maryellen Molyneux told FoodNavigator-USA.

“Younger people we surveyed are more likely to describe themselves as knowledgeable on this issue. And even among the general population, 41% express concerns, even when you place GM crops in context with other issues such as water quality, the economy and our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Meanwhile, the PR strategy of fighting labeling appeared to have spectacularly backfired as it just played into the hands of those arguing the industry has something to hide, she added. “It then becomes a debate about transparency.”

NMI-non-gmo trends3
Source: Natural Marketing Institute survey, fall 2013, 3,000 adults aged over 18 years

GMA: In the coming weeks we will will file suit in federal court against the state of Vermont to overturn the law

The progress of H112 has been watched carefully by the trade, as unlike other state GMO labeling initiatives (eg. bills that have passed in Maine and Connecticut), it has no ‘trigger clause’ and will take effect on July 1, 2016 regardless of action from other states.

H112 does not require meat or milk from animals fed genetically engineered feed to be labeled, and excludes medical foods and foods sold in restaurants. However, it does includes some of the controversial clauses enshrined in failed Californian GMO labeling initiative Prop 37, including the stipulation that foods containing genetically engineered ingredients cannot be marketed as ‘natural’.

NMI-non-gmo trends2
Source: Natural Marketing Institute survey, fall 2013, 3,000 adults aged over 18 years

Anti-GMO groups welcomed the bill’s passage, with the Center for Food Safety (CFS) describing it as a “historic achievement​”; Just Label It chairman Gary Hirshberg predicting it would start a domino effect around the country; and Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook adding that, “Americans, regardless of whether they live in Vermont or any other state, want and deserve the right to know more about their food.”

However, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said H112 was “critically flawed​”, and would set the nation “on a costly and misguided path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that will do nothing to advance the safety of consumers”.

It added: “In the coming weeks GMA will file suit in federal court against the state of Vermont to overturn the law.”

NMI-non-gmo trends 1
Source: Natural Marketing Institute survey, fall 2013, 3,000 adults aged over 18 years

Click HERE​ to read more about whether H112 could withstand a First Amendment challenge.

Letter to the editor:

This is an interesting take on the impact of Vermont’s new GMO food labeling law.

One of the experts quoted in the story says that food and beverage companies are making a mistake with their passionate defense of GMO food ingredients and against labeling because of the potential marketplace risk.

Unfortunately, the expert and many observers are missing the point. The food industry’s defense of genetically modified food ingredients is not about profits – it is a higher calling. It’s about doing what is right for people and our planet, despite the marketplace risk. 

These CEOs are looking at the future and want to ensure our natural resources are preserved and that the nine billion people who inhabit our planet in 2050 will have enough to eat. 

Many of these same men and women – food industry leaders – will be long retired or gone in 2050. They have decided not to stand on the sidelines and let irrational fear and the politics of emotion eradicate one of the most positive forces for good our society has seen in generations. 

Their message to consumers and policymakers are simple and clear – the technology is safe and is making the world a better place now and for future generations. They have staked their reputations and much more on their position. 

In due time, consumers, policymakers and the courts will say there are right.

Sean McBride
Founder, DSM Strategic Communications
Former Executive Vice President, Grocery Manufacturers Association

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