For savvy pet food companies that want to keep growing sales and market share—in other words, every pet food company—it’s a hard fact that the presence or lack of genetically modified ingredients (known as GMOs) in food products is increasingly important to a growing number of consumers globally. This is definitely true with human food, and as human food goes, so goes pet food.

Consider this: 87% of consumers globally believe that non-GMO foods are “somewhat” or “a lot” healthier, according to a 2014 study of 16 major consumer markets by Health Focus International, a market research firm. As reported on FoodNavigator.com, the study also found that GMOs are the fifth top food concern among consumers globally, at 48%, just behind food preservatives and irradiation of fruits and vegetables, each at 49%. (The top two concerns were pesticides in foods and contaminated food ingredients, each at 58%.)

The study included 2,300 primary grocery shoppers in the US and 500 to 1,000 shoppers per country in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Spain and the UK. Among these countries, the level of concern about GMOs in food ranged from 22% in India and 28% in the UK to 49% in the US, 55% in Brazil, 56% in Mexico, 61% in Italy and Russia and all the way up to 71% in China.

Further, among respondents from all the countries, 63% said they think products such as caramel color or oils and sweeteners from genetically engineered corn are “less safe to eat,” despite any scientific evidence to the contrary. The author of the Food Navigator article, Elaine Watson, corroborated that finding with US-specific data from Packaged Facts, which found that 43% of 2,000 US consumers surveyed said they agree with the statement, “GMO food products are not safe to eat.” In addition, 39% of these US consumers believe non-GMO foods are more nutritious, and 42% believe GMO crops are not safe for the environment. (That, in turn, corroborates, a finding from the Health Focus study that 55% of global consumers believe GMO crops are worse for the environment.)

Specific to pet food, at least pet treats, Packaged Facts data shows that 9% of cat owners and 10% of dog owners in the US have purchased treats labeled non-GMO this year, according to David Sprinkle, publisher and research director, in his presentation at Petfood Innovation Workshop: Next Generation Treats in April. Further, 15% of cat owners and 21% of dog owners said they have purchased organic pet treats—and because products certified as organic cannot include GMOs, this aligns with non-GMO purchasing preferences.

Diving further into US consumer attitudes toward GMOs, Errol Schweizer, executive global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Market, presented interesting, if biased, data to the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in March. Among his points, he provided information from the Non-GMO Project, a certification program, which estimated GMO-free volume in the US in 2014 at US$8.5 billion in sales and more than 22,000 products from over 1,500 companies.

In addition, Schweizer presented the following data, sourced from the Natural Marketing Institute, Hartman Group and Mintel Global New Products Database:

  • US consumer awareness of GMOs increased 12 points from 2012 to 2013, to 54%;
  • Usage of non-GMO food labels also rose 16 points, led by Gen X and Millennials, who reached 60% usage;
  • More than 40% of US consumers say they are avoiding or reducing GMOs in their diet, led by Millennials and parents of children under 8 years old;
  • In 2013, GMO-free claims overtook organic among new food product launches, soaring from 19% up to 45% in just one year (organic claims rose from 24% to 39%);
  • In the US, GMO-free product launches increased 145% from 2012 to 2013, reaching 1,350 products—that represented 315% growth since 2008;
  • In the European Union (EU) since 2008, GMO-free product launches have jumped 460%, though only 29% from 2012 to 2013 (3,960 such launches in 2013).

Schweizer also cited Whole Foods own data, saying that sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products are up 16% this year and represent the company’s fastest dollar growth trend. Since March 2013, when Whole Foods announced its GMO transparency initiative, the number of non-GMO products it carries has doubled, reaching 30% of its sales, nearly 10,000 grocery items and encompassing hundreds of brands. However, he said organic is still Whole Foods’ largest product segment, accounting for 45% of its sales, enjoying 10% growth this year to date and a doubling of sales in the past five years. Its stores carry at least 15,000 organic grocery items from 1,800 brands.

Interestingly, Whole Foods’ business is not doing so well overall, with sluggish same-store sales and falling share prices. A recent article on CNNMoney.com speculated this was because the organic niche is no longer niche and the province of specialty grocers like Whole Foods. Perhaps the same could be said for the non-GMO focus and surge?

Regardless, data show non-GMO products at least gaining consumer attention and, to a certain extent, influencing purchasing decisions. In seeming support of this trend, in May USDA announced a new certification program for labeling of non-GMO ingredients in products. The Process Verified Program is voluntary, and companies must pay to have their products verified. Which some are apparently very willing to do: within days of USDA’s announcement, SunOpta claimed to be the first company to be verified. At the time, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that “other companies are already lining up to take advantage of this service.”

The question remains as to whether the US will someday have mandatory GMO labeling, as other countries and entities such as the EU do. In July the US House of Representatives went the opposite direction, passing a bill that would not only establish a voluntary non-GMO system (one would hope it would be the same as, or at least modeled on, what USDA already has in place), but would also pre-empt state laws mandating the labeling of GMOs in products, such as those passed the past few years in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. Though the Senate has not yet discussed a similar bill, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, who chairs the agriculture committee, seems interested in starting that discussion soon. On FoodSafetyMagazine.com, David L. Ter Molen speculated that this could become an issue for Democratic presidential candidates in the 2016 election.

Could GMOs also become a focus for US pet food-related groups, such as the Pet Food Institute (PFI)? Its new president, Cathleen Enright, came from the Biotechnology Industry Organization, where she spearheaded the development and launch of GMO Answers, an initiative to address negative perceptions about GMOs. In fact, she presented on the topic at PFI’s annual meeting in 2014, making the point that pet food and human food are inter-connected—including when it comes to issues like GMOs.

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dphillips@wattnet.net