Even though consumer awareness and knowledge of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) aren't very high, a recent online survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation found that shoppers will typically avoid these foods if possible. In addition, consumers want food labels to tell them whether GMOs are present.
IFIC said about half of consumers (47%) don't worry about whether foods contain GMOs, but 41% consider the presence of GMOs when purchasing foods, the survey found. Consumers also want to see a GMO symbol or wording on food packaging so they have access to the information while shopping. However, they don't want to call a number or visit a website to get such information.
The online survey of 1,002 people also found the most common reason people avoided these foods was human health, followed closely by environmental and animal health concerns.
For manufacturers looking to comply with federal GMO labeling laws, it's hard to know how to use this survey information. Should they target product marketing and outreach to those consumers who don't care that much about GMOs and/or those who know nothing or a little bit about GMOs? What about the 36% who said they know quite a bit or a fair amount? And how should they address those consumers who said they avoid GMO foods due to human health concerns?
It may make sense for food manufacturers using GMO ingredients — particularly canola, corn, soybeans and sugar beets that usually are genetically modified — to reformulate products now so they can advertise their GMO-free status by the time labeling requirements kick in. While that may be one option, it could be a costly alternative, and it's unlikely there is enough of these ingredients in non-GMO varieties to meet demand. As much as 80% of packaged foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
For those that don't plan to switch their recipes over to non-GMO ingredients, they may need to find a way to address consumer concerns about the human and animal health implications of GMOs, as well as those involving environmental and agricultural/farming concerns.
In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed symbols for labeling GMO food products, although a final decision hasn't been made. There are three different styles — featuring a sun, a smile and a plant — with each having four alternatives. The proposed symbols use "BE" or "be" for "bioengineered" instead of "GMO" or "genetically modified organisms." Smartphone scannable disclosure also would be allowed, which was a big part of the federal law — and a major hangup during the debate.
Consumers responding to the IFIC survey said they preferred the symbol with the plant because they associated it with greater concern for human health. It also correlated to a high amount consumers would pay for a GMO food and, along with the word "bioengineered," provided the most information to shoppers about the labeled product.
If the plant symbol is chosen for the GMO labeling scheme, it may connote something more premium and positive to consumers. Still, consumer concerns about health and safety were clear in this IFIC survey, so food makers — those using GMO ingredients and those that don't — would be wise to consider how to incorporate these sentiments into their labeling and marketing.
Some food manufacturers have already phased out genetically modified ingredients. Del Monte reformulated fruit, vegetable and tomato products with non-GMO ingredients two years ago. Hormel's Applegate brand did the same, and Earth Fare removed genetically modified ingredients from its private-label products last year. If more consumers exhibit reservations about GMOs, additional brands may have to do the same. But for now, companies would be wise to be transparent on their own until the new USDA labeling rules are implemented.