In the yogurt aisles, for example, Chobani is making non-GMO claims based on the fact that its yogurts do not contain ingredients derived from GE crops, and feature claims such as ‘only natural, non GMO ingredients.'
Dannon, in turn, is going one step further for some of its brands, by adhering to the stricter standards of the Non-GMO Project verified standard, under which dairy products bearing its logo must also source milk from cows fed non-GM feed.
But do busy shoppers know or care about the difference between these two non-GMO claims, and if not, will Dannon be able to deliver a return on the significant investment it is making into milk sourcing (a key component of its April 2016 pledge on clean labels, sustainability and animal welfare)?
We’re providing a new type of offering in the marketplace that’s never been available before
While it's far too early to tell right now – Dannon is only just starting to roll out its first Non-GMO Project verified Dannon-branded products, and will follow up with Oikos and Danimals branded products in 2018 – senior director, external communications Michael Neuwirth is confident the move will pay off.
“We expect the growth we will experience will help offset any cost increases we have incurred... We’re providing a new type of offering in the marketplace that’s never been available before: a non-organic product in the marketplace from a leading brand that is Non GMO Project verified,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Clearly this is a groundbreaking initiative that others may choose to follow if they are able to develop and enjoy as productive relationships with dairy farmers as we have. We’re the first non-organic yogurt company to provide this because of our unique partnerships with farmers that other yogurt makers don’t have.
“We’ve been working directly with dairy farmer partners for well over five years… and it’s enabled us to have an impact on the practices on farms. There’s been an opportunity to source some non-GMO feed on the open market, but we’ve also worked with feed partners and our dairy farmer partners who are in some cases producing their own feed. Because of their commitment and ingenuity, they have found this [meeting Dannon’s pledge] less challenging than they originally thought.”
Although Dannon doesn’t know for a fact that shoppers know or care that non-GMO claims on products from the top two players in the yogurt aisle are underpinned by different standards, “a growing number of consumers are [specifically] looking for the Non GMO Project label,” claimed Vincent Crasnier, Dannon Pledge Program Lead.
“There is a need for us as a brand to educate consumers on why going all the way to the feed is important.”
It is also working with its farmer partners to improve soil health and water quality, and reduce carbon emissions, said senior director, external communications, Michael Neuwirth: “It’s something that we’re really proud of… there’s training for workers, which is a huge part of it. There’s space parameters for animals to ensure comfort, there are provisions for things like de-horning to be done in the most careful and painless ways.”
Is there a consumer benefit?
While he could not point to any nutritional, environmental or other consumer benefit to sourcing milk from cows fed non-GM feed, Neuwirth said the move was about meeting consumer demand, adding: “We believe there is increasing consumer preference for products that are Non-GMO Project verified.”
He would not comment on a lawsuit which Dannon is currently defending in which its own attorneys argued that consumers are not in fact interested in drilling all the way down to the level of animal feed when it comes to ‘natural’ claims on its yogurts.
In a letter to Dannon penned in October 2016, farming groups including the National Corn Growers Association, National Milk Producers Federation and American Sugarbeet Growers Association said Dannon's milk sourcing strategy provided no nutritional or environmental benefits and would force farmers to take a "step backward in truly sustainable food production."
Randy Mooney, chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation, noted that there is no difference in the composition of the milk from cows fed GM animal feed and that from cows fed a non-GMO diet, and added: "This is just marketing puffery, not any true innovation that improves the actual product offered to consumers."
As part of Dannon’s April 2016 pledge, it will remove artificial sweeteners, modified food starch and some other ingredients from Dannon, Oikos and Danimals products by the end of 2018, says Vincent Crasnier, Dannon Pledge Program Lead.
“It’s a work in progress. We’re introducing new versions of Light and Fit products with no artificial sweeteners [replacing sucralose with stevia]. We’re also replacing modified food starch with a non-GMO verified corn starch. We’ve also removed carrageenan from some products.”
GMO labeling hasn’t dented sales
But what about Dannon products that do use ingredients from GM crops? As one of the first companies to start labeling them as such as part of a commitment to transparency, has Dannon seen any impact on sales after introducing wording such as ‘partially produced with genetic engineering’ on selected products? Have consumers even noticed?
According to Neuwirth, the GMO labeling initiative does not appear to have dented sales: “We were the leading maker of yogurt into and throughout all of last year and our market share has continued to grow, so business is going well.”