GMO issue won’t be going away, says consumer trends analyst

Whole Foods Market recent announcement that by 2018 all products in its stores will be labelled if containing genetically modified ingredients is a sign of “an issue that isn’t going away,” said a speaker at the Canola Council of Canada convention earlier this month.

“If there is anyone in this room who thinks that GMOs are not going to be an issue, I’m telling you you’re smoking dope,” said Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends Inc. a California-based consulting firm specializing in food and nutritional developments who spoke about shifting consumer trends at the convention.

Sloan was recently at a major North American trade show — the Natural Products Expo West — in Anaheim, California, where as much as 90 per cent of products there had GMO-free labels, she said.

“Thirty states in the U.S. have proposed bills to label GMOs,” she said.

However, concern about GE ingredients does not appear to be a top-of-mind issue among mainstream consumers at least at this time, she said.

“It’s still pretty low, but we’re going to have a lot of noise about this issue,” she said.

Sloan said it’s also important to recognize there’s been a shift by consumers away from avoidance of specific foods or ingredients to eating in ways that reflect social concerns, quality and ethics of production. It’s all part of what she calls “the new health” with label statements such as farm raised or free range or fair trade all having important connotations in consumers’ minds.

In an interview, Sloan added what’s behind the rise of concerns about GE ingredients is a bigger issue of consumers wanting to know where their food comes from.

“Consumers want to know… what’s in it, how it’s processed,” she said.

Sloan also said she thinks the canola industry needs to do more to tell its own story, not just about the health attributes of the oil, but where canola oil comes from. The imagery around canola production and its strikingly beautiful fields needs promotion, she said.

And there’s a segment of the population who doesn’t even realize that vegetable oil comes from plants, she said.

Darryl Rowe, president of McCain Foods Canada also spoke about consumer trends at the convention. With roughly three per cent of North America’s annual canola oil production used by his company, canola production and potato processing are “joined at the hip,” he said. So slumping sales of products such as french fries are something both industries need to care about, he said.

Sales of french fries have dropped by about 10 per cent since 2006.

Rowe said while french fry production remains a core product for his firm, it is looking to innovate while adopting a more “consumer-centric” approach to doing business. McCain hopes to collaborate with the canola industry, he said. The health attributes of canola oil are an important part of how the company engages consumers. He also urged the canola industry to continue improving its own product.

“We need to work with the entire value chain to come up with consumer-based solutions that make a meaningful difference.”

Rowe also said many companies are starting to talk about the implications of Whole Foods’ plans to label for GE ingredients. Right now it doesn’t appear to be a top-of-mind concern among consumers, he said.

“I think we’ll have to start spending more time digging deeper to understand what the consumer really thinks and understands,” he said.

Rowe also described the launch of the Alliance for Potato Research and Education (APRE) an industry-supported advocacy group promoting the science-based nutrition and health attributes of potatoes among consumers.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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