Although voters in California and Washington state have rejected ballot measures to label genetically engineered foods, in some ways the topic is just heating up. Labeling supporters say their ultimate aim is nationwide disclosure, and the subject is more on people’s minds because of media coverage and advertising surrounding both measures, plus Whole Foods’ well-publicized decision to label genetically engineered products in its stores by 2018.
The vast majority of consumers still do not know what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are, which gives food companies, including retailers, an opportunity to be proactive in providing information and helping shape consumers’ opinions, according to research compiled by Hartman Retainer Services. The Whole Foods example is a start, as is an online forum launched this summer by Monsanto, DuPont and other genetically modified seed sellers, to answer questions about biotechnology in food and agriculture. "Dialogue is good,” the president of DuPont’s agricultural unit told Reuters. “Over time I think we'll come to a common understanding."
Commitment to transparency is increasingly important for companies to be considered among the “good guys,” Hartman Retainer Services has found. Consumers are concerned about maintaining a right to know how their food is grown and handled, echoing a continuing trend toward fresh, real and less processed food. The information consumers do have about GMOs has led them to worry about biodiversity and possible adverse health effects, because they perceive genetically engineered foods as somehow unnatural. More fundamentally, they do not understand what genetically engineered foods are or how their technology differs from crop hybridization.
As the GMO debate grows louder, some have begun to demand that companies take a stand, according to Hartman Retainer Services research. For example, they ask why companies that are vocally anti-GMO don’t publicly boycott the products. They also want to know why some companies oppose labeling and wonder if that means they have something to hide.
These are all areas where retailers and other food companies can step in and help consumers make better informed decisions. It does not necessarily mean taking a stand on labeling or pesticides or any other aspect of the debate—but simply meeting customers where they are and using information to allay their confusion and maintain their trust.
The Hartman Group’s Organic and Natural report includes a deep dive into consumers’ attitudes towards GMOs.
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.