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Marketing and Comms
Will GMO Labeling Muddy the Sustainable Food Waters or Make Things Clearer?

Socially responsible investment themes come to light in a range of industries we touch every day. Agriculture and food is a prime example, and the emergence of GMO labelling is a big part of the conversation.

With Vermont now the third state to require food labels to reveal the presence of genetically modified ingredients, issues of food sustainability are about to become a little clearer. Stricter labeling guidelines will soon follow; down the road, it could be illegal to market products containing GMO ingredients using descriptions such as “natural,” “naturally made” or “naturally grown.”

But they could still be local … and good for you.

While it may be confusing in the near-term, I have little doubt the public will figure it out, slowly but surely, because we always do. Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously described his threshold tests for pornography in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) as, “I know it when I see it.” Truth be told, food ingredients and labels have become a version of pornography, filled with words that probably shouldn’t be shared in mixed company (I’m embarrassed just writing about it).

My favorite illustration is a comparison between the ingredients in packages of stir fry teriyaki chicken from Evol Foods and Lean Cuisine. The Evol label has 36 words, all which are easy to understand. The Lean Cuisine label contains 102 words - it’s exhausting and confusing to read.

EVOL v. Lean Cuisine

Boulder Brands, the parent company for Evol Foods, understands that people want to eat real food that tastes good. Over a decade ago, the company introduced Smart Balance, a margarine with no trans fats, and took so much market share due to their better health claims that all other major players in the segment had to drop trans fats from their offerings. Now Smart Balance has gone GMO-free, and my bet is that others will once again be forced to respond.

Indeed, dominating market share with healthier food has been a tried and true strategy for Boulder Brands, with Glutino and UDI emerging as two brand names with fast growth in grocery stores. The popularity of the gluten-free market has led to bread sales declining nationwide, down 11 percent over a recent five-year period-, while gluten-free sales are expected to grow by 50 percent over the next three years.

Less well-recognized is the concurrent decline in sales of unhealthy products. Despite the protestations of Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent that “Coca-Cola remains magical,” consumers have been resisting the product’s allure. Since 2007, US sales of Coke are down 9.4 percent and Diet Coke sales alone have dropped 19.2 percent. It would be hard to distinguish the sales charts of carbonated soft drinks from tobacco, as they both are showing 2-4 percent annual declines — further proof that society is investing in a healthier lifestyle.

So while states, regulatory bodies, food companies and the general public examine healthy ingredients and labeling in food products, rest assured consumers are growing hungry for awareness around sustainable food choices. And they’ll know it when they see it.

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