Hello there! Before I dare to share any opinions in this space, please allow me to introduce myself.
I have worked as a magazine journalist for more than 20 years. During the last 14 of those years, I covered the food and beverage industry on both the processing and retail sides.
I live in the Chicago suburbs with my husband and our youngest son. I love to travel — which is a good thing, because our oldest son resides on the West Coast and our daughter is pursuing her life’s mission on the East Coast. I also adore ice cream. And cheese.
I am excited to lead the editorial side of Dairy Foods magazine — and to share with you must-know information about dairy
processing-related technology, operations and ingredients, as well new dairy products. I am also committed to the Dairy Foods tradition of bringing you the unique stories behind today’s innovative dairy processors through our exclusive corporate and plant profiles.
Product marketing: deception vs. transparency
Two weeks into my new gig I came across a press release announcing the National Milk Producers Federation’s (NMPF) Peel Back the Label campaign. The new campaign aims to highlight the need for truth and transparency in food marketing.
“The campaign comes as almost 70% of consumers say they look to front-of-label claims when making food purchasing decisions,” NMPF said, “and as food manufacturers increasingly utilize ‘free-from’ labels — [for example,] ‘no high fructose corn syrup’ or ‘GMO-free’ or ‘hormone-free’ — to play on consumers’ food safety fears and misconceptions.”
The campaign specifically targets labeling around genetically modified organisms (GMOs), noting that a number of food manufacturers are deceiving consumers here. For example, one orange juice processor added a Non-GMO Project Verified label to its product despite the fact that no commercially grown genetically modified oranges currently exist.
The campaign also blasts one yogurt processor for adding a line of non-GMO yogurt in the name of “sustainable agriculture, naturality and transparency” — without pointing to any nutritional, environmental, health or other consumer benefit. Meanwhile, it criticizes another dairy processor for using GMO-free claims in flavored milk advertising while acknowledging on its website that GMOs are safe.
Opportunity to educate
I’m not going to make a case for or against GMOs in this space. But I am going to make a case against fear-based marketing — and for consumer education.
In 2016, Brandon McFadden, an assistant professor of food and resource economics at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, published a study based on an online survey of 1,004 consumers. In conducting their research, McFadden and his colleague, Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economics professor at Oklahoma State University, wanted to know what data supported consumers’ beliefs about genetically modified food and gain a better understanding of preferences for a mandatory label.
The study’s conclusion? Although consumers are aware of genetically modified crops and food, their knowledge level is limited and often at odds with the facts. Of those surveyed, 84% supported a mandatory label for food containing genetically modified ingredients. However, 80% also supported a mandatory label for food containing DNA, which would result in the labeling of almost all food.
Another 2016 survey-based study, conducted by researchers from the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, also revealed that most Americans — 88% — support the mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs. However, 58% of consumers surveyed in the study admitted having only a fair or poor understanding of GMOs.
The loud call on the part of many consumers for non-GMO labeling, therefore, springs out of fear of the unknown. Because the unknown is scary.
In late 2016, President Obama signed into law a bill that requires food and beverage manufacturers to label the presence of GM ingredients in their products. The law goes into effect in 2018 and gives food manufacturers the option of using words, symbols or a QR code on their labels to indicate a product contains GM ingredients. The labels, though well-intentioned, have the potential to further escalate consumer fear.
But as food processors, you are in a unique position to change the scary unknown into the not-nearly-as-frightening familiar. Through simplified, fact-based consumer communications, you could explain the “what” and the “why” behind GMOs — and be honest about your reason for keeping them or ditching them.