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Pet food shoppers increasingly say they look for non-GMO claims on labels and are even willing to pay more for pet foods with such claims. What if pet foods were required to declare inclusion of GMO ingredients on their labels; would that cause some pet owners to steer clear of such products? We may soon find out, at least in the US.
The US Senate just passed legislation mandating labeling of GMO ingredients nationwide. True, the bill currently targets human food products, and to become law, it has to be passed by the US House of Representatives, which passed its own, very different GMO labeling legislation a year ago. (The House bill calls for voluntary labeling.) But if the Senate bill does become law, it likely would also affect pet food—so much so that organizations like the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) have commented on it and support it.
The new Senate bill is also receiving support from food and biotech organizations, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), because it would override state laws such as the one that went into effect in Vermont on July 1. AFIA, GMA and other groups have complained that if GMO-labeling laws continue to happen state by state, it will create a patchwork of standards and requirements that would be very costly to comply with—and costs would ultimately be passed onto consumers. (There is already some backlash against the Vermont law and its consequences, less than a week after it went into effect.)
What’s interesting is that previously, organizations fighting the state laws argued that any labeling of products with GMO ingredients should be voluntary.* That they have now lined up to support a federal bill mandating such labeling could be because of announcements by large food companies such as Campbell Soup Co. and Mars (parent company of Mars Petcare) that they would proactively start labeling their products that contain GMO ingredients, effectively preempting any laws, whether state or federal.
Another interesting supporter of the Senate bill is the organic food industry, including the Organic Trade Association. That’s because one of the bill’s co-creators, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, ensured that the legislation allows products certified as organic under the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program to add “non-GMO” to their labels. “The latter is a provision the organic industry has long sought and could put in jeopardy the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit that for a fee will certify products as non-GMO,” wrote Nicholas Staropoli of the Genetic Literacy Project.
Of course, the Non-GMO Project is not happy about that, nor are activists and organizations who have supported state laws such as Vermont’s. Though many of these groups, such as Just Label It and U.S. Right to Know, have pushed for federal legislation mandating GMO labeling, the new Senate bill is more lenient than the Vermont law. It would allow most food companies to disclose GMO ingredients through different options, such as a digital or smartphone code, a symbol on the package or language approved by USDA, Staropoli wrote. “Smaller food companies would be able to put a phone number or website on their label instead of the code, while ‘very small’ food producers will be exempt entirely. The bill also sets a very narrow definition of what is and what is not a GMO,” he added.
“This proposal falls short of what consumers rightly expect—a simple at-a-glance disclosure on the package,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and organic food company Stonyfield Farm.
Regardless of whether you agree with supporters or critics of the bill (or fall somewhere in the middle), it’s worthwhile for pet food companies to watch how this situation unfolds and whether the bill, or a similar version of it, does indeed become law. Not only could it affect pet food labels, but pet owners are likely watching how it plays out, too. In a study in fall 2015 that included 3,562 US and French consumers, ages 18-65, who own at least one dog or one cat, Nielsen found that 33% of the US pet owners ranked non-GMO among their top three of 10 most important health-related pet food claims. (Not surprisingly, 50% of the French pet owners said the same.)
When all respondents evaluated thousands of actual product concepts for dog and cat foods, non-GMO ingredients was the top-performing claim, appearing in 74% of all concepts preferred by consumers across food types and countries. Among those consumers, at least half said they believe GMOs are unnatural, with an unknown long-term impact on health and “they themselves don’t want to eat GMOs so their pets shouldn’t have to,” Nielsen reported.
The kicker: 48% of the pet owners surveyed said they would be willing to pay more for non-GMO products than for any other claim listed.
*Update: After this blog was posted, Sarah Novak, VP of membership and public relations at AFIA, contacted me to explain that the mandatory disclosure aspect of the Senate bill is limited to human food; pet food and animal feed are not included in terms of mandatory GMO labeling.