A consumer survey conducted by the market research firm recently revealed that four out of 10 consumers claim to be avoiding or reducing genetically modified foods in their daily diet, and 23% of consumers are buying more non-GMO products than last year.
The main reason for avoiding GMOs given by 71% of consumers is they are concerned about the possible impact of GMOs on their health and well-being, followed by 48% of consumers who said they avoid GMOs because they “want to know exactly what goes into the food I eat,” according to the Hartman Organic & Natural 2014 report.
“But, when probed, very few [consumers] can identify any singular specific health issue or disease risk to GMO consumption through their diet,” which suggests “their stated health concern [is] really a concern about transparency,” according to the report.
“Fear of the unknown is driving most of the attitudinal concerns among consumers,” the report adds, noting that as a result 66% of consumers support mandatory GMO labeling and nearly half support banning the ingredients.
Many manufacturers are responding by labeling when products do not include GMO, with more than 24,500 bearing the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, according to Caroline Kinsman, communications manager for the Non-GMO Project.
She notes that since the first Non-GMO Project product was verified in 2010, “we have been experiencing exponential growth” and “are verifying approximately 500-600 products each month.”
Consumers are drawn to products with the seal because it offers them transparency into what they are eating and provides assurance that they are consuming “the most trusted alternatives to GMO food and products available today,” Kinsman said.
Manufacturers that fail to label their products one way or the other risk losing consumer trust and could face liability issues in the near future, according to The Hartman Group.
“The increasing availability of Non-GMO and labeled products further erodes consumer trust in companies who remain silent,” the group notes, adding that “taking a proactive approach to labeling GMOs is likely to be perceived as positive in terms of transparency and care for the consumer.”
Consumer perception of seals
But simply qualifying for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal is not a panacea for food manufacturers facing the threat of lost sales due to GMO concerns, The Hartman Group’s research reveals.
It found a 57% of GMO adverse consumers are not aware of the Non-GMO seal, followed by 12% who have seen the seal but do not know what it means and 16% who are familiar with it but do not consider it when making food and beverage choices. Currently, only 15% of GMO adverse consumers and 28% of core organic consumers actively look for the seal when making food and beverage choices, according to The Hartman Group’s report.
Many GMO adverse consumers also do not trust the USDA Organic seal to identify non-GMO products, the report reveals.
“Although very trusting of the USDA organic seal when shopping for organic foods/beverages,” only 49% of GMO adverse consumers would use the seal to identify non-GMO products, according to the report.
This may be due to so few consumers knowing that products must be non-GMO to qualify as certified organic. The report found only 9% of GMO adverse consumers and 8% of core organic consumers correctly stated without a prompt that USDA certified organic products did not contain GMO ingredients.
“Long term, non-GMO’s overlap with organic is likely to become more widely known in the coming years, reducing its uniqueness,” but until then manufacturers of organic foods might consider the redundant certification, according to The Hartman Group. It adds that current consumer behavior suggests the Non-GMO Project Verified seal will most likely “create the strongest correlation to purchase in non-organic, but otherwise natural, fresh dairy, meat and select center store categories.
More education necessary
Consumer education about GMOs beyond using seals also is important for food manufacturers because GMO is “a nebulous concept” that many consumers do not understand, which is generating mistrust of the food industry as a whole, The Hartman Group said.
It explains that while most consumers have heard of GMOs, confusion lingers about what they are, what foods they are in and the pros and cons of them.
Only 52% of consumers say they know what GMOs are, only 30% know which crops are most likely to be GMO and only 28% know which products have GMO ingredients.
This lack of understanding is generating concerns that damage the overall food industry’s reputation, the report’s findings suggest.
For example, some consumers view GMOs as “unnatural and manipulated in a laboratory for questionable purposes,” and others believe companies using GMO ingredients “are putting profit over consumers’ health,” according to the report.
In addition, “indignation over producers of GMOs treating small farmers poorly and using coercive and unfair business tactics” reflects poorly on the food industry, The Hartman Group notes.
The easiest solution might be labeling GMOs, it adds, given that “continued silence of food companies on the issue, as well as some companies’ attempts to fight labeling, only fuels consumer distrust and fears that companies are hiding something.”