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“GMO-Free” Surpasses “Certified Organic” in Importance for Food Shoppers

Shoppers rely on food labels to help them to make the food choices that they feel are right for themselves and their families. Different shoppers have different priorities and focus on different parts of the label — from the nutrition fact box, to the ingredient legend, to labels indicating products are everything from "certified organic" and "grown in the USA" to vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free.

But what are shoppers to do if they are looking for natural qualities in the foods they buy and use? For these consumers, purchasing products labeled as “natural” or “organic” has seemed a reliable practice. But there is increased awareness among shoppers that genetically modified (GMOs) foods are more prevalent in "natural" products than they thought. They are also discovering that products labeled as “natural” or “organic” are not necessarily GMO-free, and that many of these products are in fact genetically engineered or contain GMO ingredients. For example, products containing genetically modified soybeans are especially likely to be on the radar screen for natural and organic shoppers.

This has generated a backlash and even given rise to boycotting of brands once trusted by consumers, from Kashi cereal to Silk soymilk to Cascadian Farm’s frozen vegetables to Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, and more. For some consumers, especially shoppers looking for truly natural products, a perceived lack of transparency in these brands’ communications is fostering concern  and eroding brand trust.

In fact, concerns about GMOs in the food supply, and interest in GMO-free labeling, are now at all-time highs among US grocery shoppers. In 2011, 47% of shoppers were extremely or very concerned about the health and safety of genetically modified foods, up significantly from 42% just one year prior. These concerns are driving shopper demand for “GMO-free” labels on products: 39% of shoppers in 2011 said these labels are extremely or very important to them, up from 33% in 2010, 26% in 2006, and 20% in 2002.

EcoFocus Worldwide

1 EcoFocus Worldwide Trend Survey 2012
2 The 2007 HealthFocus Trend Report

Putting this into context, the importance of GMO-free labeling surpassed the importance of certified organic labeling by a five-point margin last year: Just 34% of grocery shoppers in 2011 consider “Certified Organic” labels to be extremely or very important (up two points since 2010). This is a significant call to action for food and beverage marketers targeting shoppers who are looking for natural and organic product benefits.

These consumers see value in GMO-free choices; those who consider “GMO-free” labels to be extremely or very important are increasingly willing to pay more for products offering health and environmentally friendly advantages. In 2011:

  • 77% said “to me, it is usually worth paying more for healthier products,” up from 69% in 2010.
  • 60% agreed “I would be prepared to pay more for environmentally friendly products,” up from 55% in 2010.

The suggested potential bio-tech advantages of better nutrition, drought tolerance, disease resistance, and other attributes have not been generally communicated to American consumers. In fact, the lack of information and transparency about the use of biotechnology has instead furthered consumer suspicions about the health and safety of genetically modified crops and foods

Despite repeated assurances from the FDA and other authorities that genetically modified foods do not pose a health risk to consumers, the food industry should expect that consumer concerns about the genetic modification of our food supply will continue to heat up. Additionally, more recent consumer interest in environmentally friendly products will add fuel to this fire: Only 14% of shoppers in 2011 rated genetically modified crops as being eco-friendly, while 32% of shoppers say genetically modified crops are eco-unfriendly. Their perception is the reality for the food industry and agribusinesses.

While Proposition 37 did not pass in this month’s California election, and a great deal of controversy remains over the legal issues and economic implications, look for shoppers to continue to drive and impact the need for transparent GMO labeling. Regardless of the legal and regulatory provisions, marketers need to recognize that we are in a new consumer age where consumers are more often the communicators than the audience. Using Twitter, Facebook, petition sites and more, they can and will drive change by rallying similar-minded consumers to the GMO labeling cause.

Linda Gilbert is the founder and CEO of EcoFocus Worldwide. EcoFocus provides consumer perspectives on green and sustainability. She has more than twenty years experience providing multi-national market leaders with insights and consumer perspectives to improve their success with… [Read more about Linda Gilbert]

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