Dannon has been on a journey for the last couple of years. As the yogurt market leader reaches an important milestone, they’re largely keeping quiet about it — and letting a little butterfly tell the story.
A year and a half ago, the company launched the Dannon Pledge — a promise to increase transparency through more natural and non-GMO ingredients, clearer labels, and direct partnerships with dairy farms. In the last couple weeks, the first Non-GMO Project Verified Danimals smoothies have been shipped to grocery stores nationwide. By the end of 2018, all Danimals, Dannon and Oikos branded products for sale in the U.S. will feature the little butterfly seal that denotes the items don't contain GMOs, said Michael Neuwirth, senior director of external communications for Dannon's parent company DanoneWave.
The accomplishment may appear small, but Neuwirth and Dannon Pledge Lead Vincent Crasnier said it was a major change for the manufacturer — one the company has been working on diligently since first publishing the Dannon Pledge last April.
“The choice that we’re giving is added value,” Neuwirth told Food Dive in an interview. “We are the first yogurt company and large dairy company to undertake this. We believe that with the Non-GMO Project Verified value, for those shoppers for whom non-GMO is a priority, this will be another reason for them to love our products. And for those who are not interested in it, they won’t see a change in the product. So it really is an added value benefit to a product that our shoppers — our fans — already love.”
While there aren’t too many ingredients in yogurt, Dannon still needed to work hard to get its non-GMO sourcing in place.
“In order to undertake what we have done, we had to go very far upstream in our supply chain, to not only the farmers that provide us with milk, but those farmers have had to go upstream to the feed suppliers that provide them with feed for the cows,” Neuwirth said. “... That has been not something easy to accomplish. It’s required a lot of planning and a lot of teamwork.”
Some new feed suppliers needed to be found — and in some cases, dairy farmers had to convince their feed suppliers to start growing enough non-GMO feed for their cows. Once that obstacle was breached, according to Neuwirth, making the shift was not difficult, but it was only possible because the company works directly with its dairy farmers.
“In order to undertake what we have done, we had to go very far upstream in our supply chain, to not only the farmers that provide us with milk, but those farmers have had to go upstream to the feed suppliers that provide them with feed for the cows."
Senior director of external communication, Danone
Dannon made that move more than five years ago, which Neuwirth said was intended to improve the company’s sustainability — both environmentally and fiscally. After all, he said, it’s difficult to know how much water and energy is used on farms when the company is not involved with them. Dairy markets are also subject to fluctuation. Dannon wanted more control over its ingredient costs, and personal agreements with farmers helped make that happen.
The major ingredient that had to become non-GMO was the dairy used in the yogurt, Neuwirth said. Dannon already did not use any genetically modified fruits, so no changes were made there. A few other ingredients needed changing, however — like removing genetically modified beet-derived sugar and using non-GMO cane-derived sugar instead. He described that shift as a “non-event for us,” as supply was easy to find.
“We have been diligent and mindful of bringing our farmer partners along with us — those who want to, and uniformly they have,” he said. “They see the long-term relationship that we enjoy with our dairy farmer partners helps them because they have a reliable and stable customer.”
From planning to store shelves
Dannon isn’t planning a big publicity push to announce the non-GMO status of its products. Instead, it's hoping to capitalize on the “surprise and delight” of consumers who already love their yogurt and notice the new verification seal on the package. Neuwirth doesn’t think the non-GMO status will entice the type of consumer who doesn’t regularly eat yogurt to suddenly pick up Dannon products.
However, Crasnier said that ingredient sourcing and non-GMO certification are becoming much more important to the average consumer. Dannon’s new certification will help serve that person and let them know the company is on the same page.
“We’ve heard consumer expectation and insight. They want to know what’s in their food. They want to know, more and more of them, how it’s being produced and they want more natural products. So we’ve been doing all this work in expectation. Like we say in the company, each time you eat and drink, you vote for the world you want to be in,” Crasnier told Food Dive. “… So I think one of the challenges we have is to continue the consumer connection. … More and more transparent and explain really what we are doing. Hopefully, they will understand and hopefully they will want to support.”
"Like we say in the company, each time you eat and drink, you vote for the world you want to be in."
Dannon Pledge lead
The non-GMO verification goes deeper into Dannon’s corporate DNA than a product revamp. Earlier this year, when Dannon formally merged with WhiteWave Foods to form DanoneWave, the new company was chartered as a public benefit corporation — charged with the dual mission of bringing value to shareholders and healthy food to consumers at large.
Crasnier said the only difference consumers should see or taste is the Non-GMO Project Verified symbol on the yogurt carton. The company worked hard to ensure the taste, appearance and texture all stayed the same.
The fact that the market leader in yogurt is making such a big change may also serve as an inspiration to other large manufacturers to pursue non-GMO transitions and certifications. Before making the commitment, Dannon had to carefully think through what needed to be done, Neuwirth said. Company leaders initially weren’t quite sure how to make it happen, but they pledged to figure it out.
“Be committed to it,” Neuwirth said. “Bring along all of your partners and suppliers, whomever it may be, along with you on your journey. Communication is paramount to accomplish ambitious goals. But the more I talk about it, this isn’t a general commitment. It’s a life commitment.”
For the moment, Dannon is working to finish transitioning its three large yogurt brands to non-GMO ingredients. Crasnier wasn't sure what the company’s next big project might be beyond that.
“It’s a continuous journey, and I’m pretty sure new things are going to come down the road, especially with support and trust is coming, and curiosity is coming with it,” he said. “… We will see where the movement brings us, but I’m pretty sure we’re not going to stand still.”