In 2014, 57% of U.S. adults surveyed by NPD Group expressed some level of concern about GMOs when asked about their feelings related to the ingredients. This is up from 43% in 2002, according to the information company’s ongoing Food Safety Monitor survey.
While only about 20% of survey respondents said they were “very” or “extremely concerned” about GMOs in 2014, this also is up from 10% in 2002, according to the research.
“A lot of the growing concern shows from not knowing what [GMOs] are or when and where they are used,” Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst, told FoodNavigator-USA.
“When we asked people to tell us what GMOs are, the biggest answer we get is ‘I don’t know,’” he said, noting other common answers were they are “processed in some way” or “not natural.”
“When they hear the word ‘genetic’ associated with their food, it gives them a reason to pause because they are not sure what it means. We naturally fear what we don’t understand, and think it is bad,” he said.
He added this fear continues to breed with ongoing media coverage of labeling initiatives, most of which do not succinctly explain the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s difficult to decipher definition of GMOs, which is “the production of inheritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods.”
Confusion restrains spending
Confusion about GMOs may be one reason why two-thirds of primary grocery shoppers are unwilling to pay more for non-GMO products, said Seifer, citing an early NPD report entitled Gauging GMO Awarness and Impact.
Considering sourcing a consistent supply of non-GMO ingredients and becoming certified as non-GMO can be expensive and difficult, it may be hard for some companies to pay the higher price without being able to pass some or all of the extra cost on to consumers.
There is, however, a small subset of consumers who are willing to pay more for non-GMO products and who actively seek them out, Seifer said.
He noted 14% of survey respondents who shop across all grocery channels actively look for and buy non-GMO products. This increases to about half of the survey respondents who primarily shop natural and specialty stores, Seifer said.
What this means for manufacturers wondering if they should go non-GMO is that they should evaluate first their primary shopper and where their products are predominately sold, Seifer said. He added a better business case could be made for product primarily sold in specialty and natural stores.
Should manufacturers speak up for GMOs?
Manufacturers that cannot or do not want to reformulate with non-GMO ingredients have mostly stayed quiet on the debate about GMO labeling, Seifer noted.
However, as the debate continues, manufacturers and retailers might want to take a more active role in the discussion and point and out the benefits of GMO ingredients, he added.
“They could say why they use GMOs … and discuss the benefits,” such as the crops are more disease or pest resistant and can be grown with fewer pesticides or other resources, he said.
While he acknowledged this could alienate some consumers who might discontinue to buy a product that overtly states it uses GMOs, he also pointed out that 44% of consumers NPD surveyed in late 2013 said GMOs have benefits, compared to only 25% of who said they do not. The remaining 31% did not know.
He also compared the debate to the discussion about the health and safety of high fructose corn syrup several years ago. He noted that HFCS providers were slow to defend the sweetener, but when they did they underscored how it was similar to sugar.
While considering whether to go non-GMO, Seifer also encouraged manufacturers to consider the role of additives and artificial ingredients in their products, since many consumers place all these together in the same bucket.
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