Today Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law takes effect. Opinions on the law range widely, and manufacturers have scrambled over the last two years to change labels, reformulate products, or follow Coca-Cola and pull certain products from Vermont shelves altogether.
Congress had tried and failed to pass a national GMO labeling standard that would override Vermont's law. Vermont's bill has thus become "a de facto federal standard" due to the logistics required to label products only for the Vermont market, according to Billy Roberts, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. Several major manufacturers have since committed to labeling GMO ingredients in products nationwide.
The Senate recently introduced a new bill, a bipartisan national mandatory GMO labeling standard. But because of Congress' logistics and holiday schedule, the Vermont bill is in effect Friday.
While concerns surrounding GMO labeling have mounted for years, this is a new day in testing consumers' perceptions of GMOs and how much — if at all — GMO labeling will impact behavior and attitude.
How will consumers react to GMO labels?
"Companies that have to list the genetic modifications of their products could face some consumer backlash," said Roberts. "Consumers are probably not entirely aware of how much genetically-modified foods have permeated the food supply."
Consumer surveys back this sentiment. A 2015 Pew Research Center report found that 57% of American adults believe GMOs are generally unsafe. The percentage of Americans who believe manufacturers should label GMOs ranges depending on the survey, from 66% in a December 2014 poll from Associated Press and GfK to 89% in a November 2015 poll by The Mellman Group. Other polls have put that percentage in the low- to mid-90s.
While that is a common opinion and concern among manufacturers, some studies suggest otherwise. The International Food Information Council this week promoted findings from its foundation's 2016 Food and Health Survey, in which 51% of American consumers said they were unsure or had no preference for the use of GMOs in the food supply. This survey also pegged the number of consumers who support an expanded GMO labeling policy at 44%.
However, another recent survey asked consumers more generally what they would like to see on a food or beverage label that isn't already there. Without a prompt about labeling GMOs specifically, only 7% said "GMOs."
Bigger trouble ahead for "natural" product makers forced to label GMOs
Consumer reaction to GMO labels could also depend on a manufacturer's previous positioning of its brand or product.
"If manufacturers have positioned themselves strongly as 'natural' but suddenly have to reveal that they have genetically-modified ingredients in their food, that could seriously damage the trust that their tried and true consumer has in those products," said Roberts. "Because consumers, whether they're correct or not, have largely associated 'natural' claims with no genetic modification."
Without an official regulated definition from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the "natural" claim is fair game for manufacturers to interpret. Once manufacturers label GMOs, class action prosecutors could then target "natural" food and beverage manufacturers with mislabeling accusations.
A 2016 Consumer Reports study found that at least 60% of consumers believe a food is "natural" if it is non-GMO and doesn't contain artificial ingredients, and 45% believe the term "natural" is verified. However, the FDA only closed the comment period for a "natural" definition last month, so a regulated definition could still be far off.
Repositioning GMOs in consumer perceptions
GMO labels could take different forms. It could be an on-package statement per Vermont's law. It could be information shared via a website consumers access by scanning an on-package QR code, or a calling center that an on-package phone number directs consumers to, as prescribed by the pending labeling bill in the Senate.
So, how do manufacturers shape the conversation surrounding GMOs?
"The key question very well may be a degree of spin on genetic modification to indicate that it may not necessarily be a bad thing for consumers," said Roberts.
Roberts said manufacturers could focus on a variety of elements:
- Studies repeatedly show that GMOs are safe.
- GMOs have been in the food supply for decades.
- Genetic modification can increase a crop yield, which benefits local farmers.
- Increasing crop yields also feeds more people and is necessary as the world population grows rapidly.
- Genetic modification can lower the risk of a crop dying due to pestilence, which can reduce food waste.
- It can also add nutrients to an ingredient to improve accessibility to nutrition for more people.
Pro-GMO supporters have especially promoted the need for genetic modification and agricultural technology to feed the world's population. While that might be one viable way to gain consumers' attention, it's less clear how that would impact purchase decisions.
"The key question will be, will consumers accept (GMOs) in their own diets versus diets elsewhere?" said Roberts. "It always comes down to what consumers will accept in their own home versus someone else's home. That will be a challenge."
What will happen next?
With the new Senate bill differing from Vermont's legislation, it's unclear what exactly labeling might look like. The House is on recess, and the Senate has been busy with lobbyists and constituents' phone calls in the days leading up to its own six-week summer break.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) has been vague about whether he has enough support to push this bill through. Also Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) said he will attempt to block consideration of the latest Senate bill.
Congress' actions aside, Vermont's law is here. However, manufacturers still have a six-month grace period before state officials start enforcing the law on Jan. 1, 2017.