The ‘Peel back the label’ campaign alerts consumers to examples of “deceptive food labeling” such as “gluten-free water, GMO-free tomatoes (all tomatoes are already GMO-free)… No high-fructose corn syrup peanut butter (true for all brands)…. and GMO-free milk (all milk is inherently GMO-free).”
It also highlight ads it believes exploit consumer fears about genetic engineering, including a TruMoo video featuring kids trying to get their heads around GMOs (a tactic also employed in controversial ads by Arla touting its rbst-free products) in which brand owner Dean Foods employs the slogan ‘No GMOs, No Worries.’
Our job is to address fears, not perpetuate them
Jumping on bandwagons and exploiting consumer fears is hardly new in food marketing, and food companies obviously have to listen to consumers, NMPF president Jim Mulhern told FoodNavigator-USA, "But our job is to address fears, not perpetuate them, and on behalf of our dairy farmer members [some of whom also grow their own animal feed], we want to draw a line."
This is particularly important when it comes to a new trend - spearheaded by Dannon - to source milk from cows that have not been fed GM feed in order to meet the requirements of the Non-GMO Project, which requires manufacturers to look beyond the ingredients list and go right back to the farm in the case of dairy products, he said.
And while Dannon has been careful not to demonize GMOs and says its focus is simply providing consumers with choices, its decision to source milk from cows fed non-GM feed for major product lines (Dannon, Danimals and Oikos) could have major implications on the dairy supply chain if others follow, said Mulhern.
"The implication of Dannon’s pledge about sourcing milk from cows fed non-GMO feed is that it’s more sustainable, when in fact the opposite is true, while there are no nutritional differences between milk from cows fed GM vs non-GM feed, and no safety benefits. In fact there is no benefit to consumers. It’s just marketing puffery.
“And my concern is that this kind of marketing threatens the use of technology that’s allowed farmers to use crop inputs that are much safer than what they were using 20 years ago. You can reduce your fuel usage, make fewer trips to the field, do no-till farming, improve water quality and improve yield.”
But if consumers want non-GMO Project verified dairy products – and are prepared to pay a premium for them – why not just give them what they want?
Because there are no genuine benefits to consumers, because it’s worse for the environment, and because it will ultimately harm dairy farmers, he claimed.
As for price, the premiums currently associated with supplying this milk won’t last, he predicted: “Yes, buyers will pay a premium in the short term to attract the supply, which is what we’re seeing right now, but over time that premium will disappear.”
Organic on the cheap?
Mulhern added: “I think what many consumers don’t actually realize, is that what a lot of this is about [sourcing non GMO Project Verified ingredients] is doing organic on the cheap.”
Going fully organic – a certification underpinned by multiple environmental and animal welfare standards – is expensive, he said, whereas going Non-GMO enables firms to enjoy an undeserved health and environmental halo, without spending the money it takes to make a real difference.
And while both Dannon and Dean Foods have made it clear on their corporate websites and press releases that they don’t believe GMOs are unsafe (Dean Foods notes that “We fully support conventional dairy farming"), said Mulhern, they are sending mixed messages to consumers, who might reasonably ask, if GMOs aren't harmful, why are you avoiding them?
Dean Foods: NMPF is doing harm, including to its own members
Dean Foods, however, told FoodNavigator-USA that the NMPF would be better off devoting resources to encourage Americans to drink more milk, with or without non-GMO claims, than attacking dairy companies.
Jamaison Schuler, senior director, corporate communications, added: “It’s disappointing to see the National Milk Producers Federation using dairy farmer dollars to blast companies selling dairy foods. Our goals should be the same: to increase the amount of healthy, nutritious milk people drink.
“NMPF is doing harm, including to its own members, by attacking the nation’s #1 chocolate milk brand... We encourage consumers and NMPF to enjoy a glass of milk and focus on building up dairy foods, not dragging them down.”
Dannon: This is all about consumer choice
Dannon, meanwhile, said it was “surprised that we are on the receiving end of criticism about our providing choices that consumers are looking for.
“We believe the currently approved GMOs are safe. Furthermore, we believe that sustainable agricultural practices can be achieved with or without the use of GMOs. However, given the growing consumer preference for non-GMO ingredients and food in the US and with the support of our farmer partners, we are beginning to provide products that address this consumer demand with Non-GMO Project verified products.”
DanoneWave CEO Mariano Lozano added: “We believe strongly that the unparalleled range of choice that we provide, including organic, non-organic and now Non-GMO Project verified is a reason to celebrate rather than criticize.”
Do consumers understand the distinctions between different non-GMO claims?
Dannon has not said whether sales of its products featuring Non-GMO Project Verified claims have increased sufficiently to offset the costs involved in sourcing milk from cows fed non GM feed, and much will likely depend on how consumers respond to the new labels, predicted Mulhern.
Other dairy companies, he said, will be watching Dannon’s numbers closely to see if it’s worth drilling down all the way to the level of animal feed to secure the coveted Non GMO Project verified label, given that consumers may not even realize that Dannon is going a step further than rivals making generic ‘non-GMO ingredients’ claims, but still sourcing regular milk.
Ultimately, claimed Mulhern: “It’s distinctions without a difference. Either way, there are no benefits to consumers, it’s all marketing puffery.”