Although the discussion might not yet be trickling into the average supermarket, activist groups and the natural food industry have been bringing the controversial issue of genetically modified foods to the attention of more consumers through recent initiatives on labeling.
One of these initiatives is the two-week Right2Know March starting earlier this month calling for labeling of GM foods. Starting in New York City, marchers held store events and planned to end their event with a rally in front of the White House on Oct. 16, World Food Day. The march was still in progress at the time of publication.
The Staff March Organizer Adam Eidinger said the march had been averaging around 50 people a day, not counting support staff, and he approximated 30 would march the entire length to Washington, D.C. Eidinger, who also works closely with the soap supplier Dr. Bronner's, said people the march passed were supportive of its message.
Marchers were asked what a GMO was, why they were marching and where they marched from.
“From our perspective, this kind of face-to-face interaction is really valuable,” Eidinger said.
Marchers in turn asked passersby to send a comment to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration through the “Just Label It” campaign. Last month, the Center for Food Safety filed a legal petition asking for the mandatory labeling of GM foods. The Just Label It campaign has hundreds of partner organizations including many natural food retailers and suppliers. The march itself received support from around 50 companies and organizations such as Silk, the soymilk brand, and Stonyfield.
Jay Jacobowitz, president of natural product industry consulting group Retail Insights, Brattleboro, Vt., said he sees rising awareness levels with U.S. consumers, and that he thinks in the long term the GMO issue could become more of a mainstream concern due to the influence of Gen X, Gen Y and Millennial shoppers.
“I think it's also partly generational. The next generation coming up, the Gen X and Gen Y and Millennials … the ones that are concerned about food, are hyper concerned about food and what they put in their body,” said Jacobowitz.
Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Organic Consumers Association, agreed the GMO issue has been getting more attention from consumers.
“There seems to be an upsurge of concern and activism around the issue. All the polls are all pretty much all the same that 80% to 90% want [GMO] labeling. If you ask [consumers] — which most pollsters don't — ‘Why do you want labeling?’ Typically they answer because they would like to avoid them,” said Cummins.
As for what's driving any upsurge in concern, Cummins pointed to activists groups and the organic community putting more time and resources into the issue.
“It's also we've reached a critical mass of scientific studies indicating that GMOs are harmful to animals and human health and the environment,” Cummins added.
Later this month, the Organic Consumer Association and other groups are filing papers with the California Attorney General's office to make mandatory GMO labeling a California a Citizen's Initiative on the November 2012 ballot.
“If this passes in November 2012, it will have national, not just state repercussions,” Cummins said.
Despite the recent attention brought to genetic modification, the topic might not be on the average consumer's mind.
“By and large, I think that you do an interview with the man or the woman on the street [about GMOs] and eight or nine out of 10 are not going to have a clue what you're talking about,” Jacobowitz said.
Jacobowitz thinks having non-GMO products is a strategic point of differentiation for food-oriented natural food stores.
“At the top end the better quality retailers in the natural channel that have food oriented stores are all aware of this issue and are not going to let it go,” he said.
“It's in their interest, they believe — and I think they're correct — to hold manufacturers' feet to the fire to source non-GMO ingredients as a long-term strategy.”
Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets holds GMO educational events and partners with the Non-GMO Project “the first independent, third-party certifier to establish Best Practices and testing throughout the supply chain to ensure non-GMO claims,” spokesperson Diana Crane told SN. The retailer has also developed a searchable NonGMO database for their growing offering of nonGMO products.
“PCC shoppers are very concerned about GMOs,” said Crane. “PCC is fully behind their right to know if the food they buy contains genetically-modified ingredients.”