As of this week, most food products sold in the United States that are made with ingredients with detectable genetically modified DNA need to identify that on their labels. And though GMO labeling has been a hot topic of discussion for years, a new study indicates that there may not be much new consumer reaction to the required on-package disclosures.
The study, worked on by Cornell University faculty members Aaron Adalja and Jura Liaukonyte, examined sales data from cereal products in Vermont after the state enacted its own GMO labeling law. The short-lived state law went into effect in July 2016 and was invalidated at the end of that year by the federal labeling law. Researchers' findings showed that consumers' purchase rate of products made with GMOs didn't really change once the labeling law took effect.
That doesn't mean that GMO labeling has no impact on consumer sentiment and purchase habits, though. Adalja and Liaukonyte also looked at Google searches in seven states that considered their own labeling laws, and found a uptick in interest in GMO information and the Non-GMO Project — an independent nonprofit group that has a stringent verification program — due to increased public discussion around the issue. Purchase data in Vermont showed a slight uptick in purchases of Non-GMO Project Verified products as there were legislative discussions about GMOs. Those buying trends stayed fairly stable after the issue left the news.
"Any changes in behavior that we observed were facilitated by the rulemaking process and the existence of Non-GMO [Project] labels that were already on the market, had been on the market for the last decade," Adalja said. "A lot of consumers already made changes in their behavior before the law was ever passed."
Contrary to previous studies that indicated the mandatory labels for products made with bioengineered food would herald big swings in consumer preferences and buying, this new study shows a more muted effect.
It also shows that the most impactful labeling to consumers is not the mandatory disclosure that a product was made with bioengineered ingredients, but the voluntary certification from the Non-GMO Project, Liaukonyte said.
"For the people who care about this attribute — GMO versus non-GMO — they have the information on the shelves already to figure out which products are GMO and which products are non-GMO," Liaukonyte said. "And for the people who do not care about it, this [mandatory] label is unlikely to change their behavior."
Awareness equals behavior changes
Both Adalja and Liaukonyte were interested in taking a look at actual shopper and web search data around GMO labeling after hearing the debate about it in a handful of states and Congress. Many of the studies about the impact of GMO labeling have been done in lab settings — showing consumers potential product packages and asking their preferences.
"In the lab we're always testing kind of in isolation, right?" Liaukonyte said. " ...But what was very different in the field this time is the coexistence of all of these other signals in the marketplace that are out there. You have the GMO labeling, you have the non-GMO labeling, you have all of the other things happening."
Largely thanks to the efforts of the Non-GMO Project, which has offered its distinctive butterfly certification since 2010, there is a heightened awareness of GMO products and labeling. On the other side of that coin, very few products disclosed on their packaging that they used ingredients that are products of genetic modification or bioengineering until it became required.
When Vermont's GMO labeling law was first introduced in 2013, however, several cereal manufacturers began pursuing Non-GMO Project verification for both existing and new products. After the law passed in 2014 and just before it was set to go into effect, researchers found an uptick in new Non-GMO Project certification. The largest number of certified products came to stores in January 2016, months before the Vermont law was to take effect. According to the paper, at that time the average number of non-GMO products per grocery store grew by 29.5% and the number of stores that had at least one non-GMO product increased by 39%.
Researchers also found that the market share of both GMO and non-GMO products in Vermont stayed steady throughout 2016 at about 75% and 12%, respectively.
What did motivate consumers to change behavior was news about GMO food. In states when GMO labeling was discussed by their state legislatures — therefore elevating the issue to news stories and popular discussion — researchers found Google searches about GMO food spiked during the legislative sessions. Once those sessions were over, interest in those search terms went back down. But market share for Non-GMO Project Verified items in those states went up slightly, compared to states that had no action on the issue.
An unexpected opportunity
In the lead-up to the implementation of Vermont's GMO labeling law, there was quite a lot of pushback against the labeling scheme from manufacturers and industry groups.
But since President Barack Obama signed the federal law requiring disclosure of bioengineered ingredients on all products sold in the United States in 2016, GMO labeling has been somewhat of a non-issue in the food and beverage industry. Manufacturers have been willing to comply, and the biggest complaints within the industry have been about figuring out the nuances of what needs to be labeled.
Most manufacturers quietly implemented the mandatory disclosures over the past year, said Jesse Zuehlke, president of food label consulting firm Prime Label Consultants. The law requires the disclosure either in simple text, by a scannable QR code, using a symbol, or through a telephone number or text message. Zuehlke said that most of the disclosures he has seen use the simple text or the QR code — both options that use a minimal amount of new space on a product label.
What has garnered more consumer attention are Non-GMO Project Verified labels. While this is a voluntary disclosure, products need to meet much more stringent standards to earn the butterfly seal. Many items with no federally required bioengineered ingredient disclosure would not be eligible for Non-GMO Project verification. But the seal has been shown to efficiently communicate GMO ingredient information to consumers.
Adalja said the attention to Non-GMO Project disclosure presents a distinct opportunity for manufacturers. Similar to the way some consumers seek out organic products and are willing to pay more for them, Adalja said the non-GMO movement has shown there is similar consumer interest in non-GMO products.
"We could see this policy initiative not as necessarily a detrimental regulation, but we could actually see it as an opportunity for firms to expand their product portfolio and try to capture some of this market," he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when a large number of Non-GMO Project Verified items entered the Vermont market.