Some Food Companies Are Quietly Dumping GMO Ingredients

Jul 23, 2014
Originally published on August 1, 2014 11:37 am

A tour of the Ben & Jerry's factory in Waterbury, Vt., includes a stop at the "Flavor Graveyard," where ice cream combinations that didn't make the cut are put to rest under the shade of big trees.

One recently deceased flavor has yet to be memorialized there: Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, one of the company's best-sellers. Ben & Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim says the company had to remove the key ingredient, Heath bars made by Hershey, and rework the flavor. Its replacement is called Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch. (Some fans have blasted the company in online forums, claiming it doesn't taste as good.)

The reason for the change? Hershey makes Heath bars with genetically engineered ingredients, and Ben & Jerry's has made a pledge to remove all GMO ingredients from its ice cream.

The company has taken a vocal stand in recent years in support of states looking at legislation that would require manufacturers to disclose food that is made with genetic engineering. And Vermont recently passed a law that will require labeling starting in 2015. Ben & Jerry's co-founder Jerry Greenfield recently launched a campaign to help fill the coffers of Vermont's crowd-sourced defense fund set up to combat lawsuits over its labeling law.

The news that Ben & Jerry's is taking a stand on a controversial issue is no surprise; it's part of the company's calling card. But some other mainstream companies are carefully — and much more quietly — calibrating their non-GMO strategies.

General Mills' original plain Cheerios are now GMO-free, but the only announcement was in a company blog post in January. And you won't see any label on the box highlighting the change. Grape Nuts, another cereal aisle staple, made by Post, is also non-GMO. And Target has about 80 of its own brand items certified GMO-free.

Megan Westgate runs the Non-GMO Project, which acts as an independent third-party verifier of GMO-free products, including Target's. She says her organization knows about "a lot of exciting cool things that are happening that for whatever strategic reasons get kept pretty quiet."

The Non-GMO Project has certified more than 20,000 products since it launched in 2007, and Westgate says this is one of the fastest growing sectors of the natural food industry, representing $6 billion in annual sales. But just because they're testing the water doesn't mean most mainstream companies are ready to start publicizing their changes.

Nathan Hendricks, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University, says big food producers are trying to gauge what direction consumers are headed in. "Ultimately," he says, "these big companies aren't just friends with Monsanto or something. They want to make a profit, and they want to be able to do what's going to make them money." So they'd better have a product line in the works if consumer sentiment starts to shift more heavily toward GMO-free food.

But even as they create GMO-free products, many of these corporations are fighting state initiatives that would require them to give consumers more information about their ingredients.

They often fight those battles through the powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association, or GMA, a trade group with hundreds of members. It has just filed suit against Vermont over the state's GMO labeling law.

Even Ben & Jerry's, so vocal in its anti-GMO stance, has a conflict, of sorts. It may have eliminated GMOs, but it's still owned by Unilever, which put a lot of money toward fighting labeling legislation in California and belongs to the GMA. That might make things sticky for Ben & Jerry's CEO Solheim.

But he equivocates. "You know," he shrugs, "in big companies a lot of things happen behind closed doors. I think we'll leave that conversation behind closed doors." But Solheim says a unique agreement between the ice cream maker and Unilever allows Ben & Jerry's to continue its social mission independent of its parent's choices.

One reason these large companies might be quietly working to make GMO-free food now is because finding ingredients can be a major challenge. More than 90 percent of all the soybeans and corn grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Most of those GMO crops go to producers of eggs, milk and meat who feed their animals with them, but GMO soy oil and cornstarch are used in a lot of food manufacturing, too.

To ensure non-GMO ingredients, the supply chain has to remain separate and pristine. Crops need to be grown far enough away from genetically engineered seeds to prevent cross-contamination. Harvesting equipment needs to be either used only for non-GMO crops or cleaned extensively before switching. The same is true for processing and manufacturing facilities and transport receptacles like shipping containers.

That's why Westgate says a natural foods brand like Kashi, owned by Kellogg's, is transitioning more slowly than many fans would like. She points out that Kashi told consumers it would take a couple of years to switch over all of its ingredients. It's a matter of changing contracts with growers, finding farmland where non-GMOs can be grown successfully, and reworking recipes so the flavors that customers have grown used to aren't drastically changed, like what has happened with Ben & Jerry's new toffee.

Right now, non-GMO food fetches a premium. Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt says that premium is likely to come down if this part of the agricultural sector gains more traction and an efficiency of scale can kick in.

Ultimately, the consumer is king. And the question of whether or not consumers will want non-GMO products is still up in the air.

At the Ben & Jerry's factory in Vermont, most tourists seem more interested in getting their free samples than hearing about the brand's stand on genetic engineering. Still, manufacturers are clearly wondering what might happen if more states enact labeling laws and if consumer sentiment begins to shift. So they're hedging their bets: fighting state-by-state labeling initiatives, but quietly introducing their own GMO-free products in the meantime.

Copyright 2014 Vermont Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.vpr.net.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A law was recently passed in Vermont that requires food made with genetically modified ingredients be labeled, starting next year. Some companies are taking it a step further and getting GMOs out of their products completely. But as Vermont Public Radio's Jane Lindholm reports, only a few of those companies are publicizing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, everybody, that was the cowbell for the 2:10 tour.

JANE LINDHOLM, BYLINE: On busy summer weekends at the Ben and Jerry's factory in Waterbury, Vermont, crowded tours leave every 10 minutes. Afterwards, fans of the iconic chunky ice cream head up to the flavor graveyard, where combinations that didn't make the cut are put to rest with a lighthearted eulogy. Visitor Nicole Parrish thought some of the bygone flavors sounded pretty good.

NICOLE PARRISH: Wild Maine Blueberry, from the land of the puffin. Now when we crave you, we turn to the muffin.

LINDHOLM: Another flavor could now be immortalized in that graveyard - gone is Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, one of the company's bestsellers. In its place, you'll now find something called coffee toffee bar crunch.

JOSTEIN SOLHEIM: We have had a lot of praise and we have had some people who sort of feel a little challenged by that choice. And that's totally understandable.

LINDHOLM: CEO Jostein Solheim said the company reworked the flavor after it cut ties with Hershey's, the maker of Heath Bars. The Heath Bar had to go for Ben and Jerry's to keep its pledge to get genetically modified ingredients out of its ice cream. Most people won't be surprised that Ben and Jerry's is taking a vocal stand on a controversial issue - it's kind of the brand's calling card. But some other mainstream companies are carefully - and much more quietly - calibrating their non-GMO strategies. Original plain Cheerios are now GMO free. They're made by General Mills. But the only announcement was made in a company blog post from January. Grape Nuts, another cereal aisle staple made by Post, are also non-GMO.

MEGAN WESTGATE: We know of a lot of exciting cool things that are happening that for whatever strategic regions get kept pretty quiet.

LINDHOLM: Megan Westgate runs the Non-GMO Project. It has certified more than 20,000 GMO-free products. Westgate says this sector represents $6 billion in annual sales. Target, for example, has about 80 of its own brand items verified with the Non-GMO Project. Nathan Hendricks, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University, says big food producers are trying to gauge what direction consumers are headed in.

NATHAN HENDRICKS: Ultimately these big companies aren't just friends with Monsanto or something, they want to make a profit. And they want to do what's going to be able to make the money.

LINDHOLM: But even as they create GMO-free products, many of these corporations are fighting state initiatives that would require them to give consumers more information about their ingredients. They often fight those battles through the powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association. It has just filed suit over Vermont's GMO labeling law. Even Ben and Jerry's has a conflict of sorts. It may be eliminating GMOs, but it's still owned by Unilever, which put a lot of money towards fighting labeling in California. That might make things sticky for Ben and Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim.

SOLHEIM: You know, as I said, you know, in big companies a lot of things happen behind closed doors. I think we'll leave that conversation behind closed doors.

LINDHOLM: As these large companies work to make GMO-free food, finding ingredients can be a major challenge. Take just two ingredients - more than 90 percent of all the soybeans and corn grown in United States are genetically engineered. That's why Megan Westgate at the Non-GMO Project says a natural foods brand like Kashi, owned by Kellogg's, is transitioning more slowly than many fans would like.

WESTGATE: It does take a couple of years often times. It's a matter of changing contracts with growers and finding areas where non-GMO can be grown successfully and things like that.

LINDHOLM: Ultimately, the consumer is king. And the question of whether or not consumers will want non-GMO products is still up in the air. Back at the Ben and Jerry's flavor graveyard, visitor Nicole Parrish says she's not too concerned about knowing what's in her snack foods.

PARRISH: It's junk food. I'm going to eat it, probably, either way, to tell you the truth. I mean, I try to eat healthy but if I'm going to eat a candy bar, I'm going to probably eat it regardless of what's really in it.

LINDHOLM: Still, many manufacturers are clearly wondering what might happen when and if states enact labeling laws. So they're hedging their bets, fighting state-by-state labeling initiatives but quietly introducing their own GMO-free products in the meantime. For NPR News, I'm Jane Lindholm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.