In pet owners’ ongoing quest to feed their pets similarly to how they feed themselves (or perhaps even more healthfully, in some cases), many are trying to avoid certain ingredients and substances in the pet foods and treats they purchase. Increasingly, high on the list of “no” claims consumers seek on both pet food and human food labels is the assurance that the product does not contain ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
For example, in a survey conducted by Nutro earlier in 2017, 65 percent of US dog owners said that, given the option, they would choose non-GMO ingredients for their dogs’ food. In terms of actual purchasing behavior, as of 2015, 10 percent of US dog owners and 9 percent of US cat owners were buying pet treats with non-GMO claims, according to Packaged Facts data. I imagine those percentages are higher now.
Yet, like many consumer desires and demands when it comes to pet food ingredients, this growing mission to avoid GMOs is not necessarily based on science. In fact, many scientists and scientific organizations say no proof exists that GMOs are unsafe or unhealthy to consume. And therein may lie the source of the distrust of GMOs: Many consumers no longer trust science or scientists, at least not when it comes to their food or the pet food they feed to their furry family members.
The science behind food
“The science of food is very complex. It’s hard to process all the information that’s out there, let alone distill and interpret the latest science,” said Trace Sheehan, producer and writer of a new documentary, “Food Evolution,” funded by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) and aimed at addressing food science and the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050. “When something is complex, we as people tend to substitute simple questions for complex ones, and that’s what I feel is happening in this [GMO] debate.”
Sheehan and the film’s director, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, were interviewed by Shana Rappaport on Greenbiz.com. It’s an interesting interview, with information and insights that might help pet food companies frame their communications and marketing messages about various types of ingredients in their products – not just GMOs – as well as their formulation and company philosophies.
For instance, Sheehan points out that when it comes to food and GMOs, the only context most consumers have is their use and promotion by “big food.” “Who is making GMOs and who is putting out the science behind it all? Big companies,” he said. “So, without having to think too hard, it becomes easy to assume that those are the bad guys and, therefore, their science must be bad. If it comes down to a choice between the CTO of Monsanto and Michael Pollan, a lot of people are going to side with Michael Pollan.” (Pollan is a food writer and journalist who has written about GMOs.)
Substitute Monsanto with the name of a large pet food company, and his comments bring to mind ones posted by consumers on many social media sites.
“We can talk about the complexities of Monsanto as a ruthlessly capitalistic company all day long, but their products, the technology itself, is safe, and it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around that,” Sheehan continued. “Our editor had a fantastic phrase in the editing room. He said, ‘What if Darth Vader helped invent the polio vaccine?’”
Need to feed the world
Like IFT, the agricultural community, including farmers, producers and suppliers of human food and ingredients, is concerned about the need to feed a growing population with finite amounts of land, water and other resources. During the week of June 26, I had the privilege of visiting Fair Oaks Farms, a working dairy farm with a non-profit arm designed to educate the public about modern farming practices and how they humanely and sustainably feed the world. Since first opening in 2003, Fair Oaks has built up to hosting 600,000 visitors a year from all 50 US states and 30 other countries, and has added a pig farm and educational center as well as a crop educational center.
“We take seriously the need to help feed the world and the growing number of people,” said Gary Corbett, co-founder of Fair Oaks Farms. “We feel a responsibility to communicate that on the tours we conduct, along with the need to accept technology and changes.” The organization conducts a lot of consumer surveys, he added. “Consumers today don't seem to care about the need to feed the world; here we’re trying to raise awareness of that.”
Thus, one section of the crop educational center addresses GMOs, not only their safety but also their ability to help feed a growing population.
Parallels to pet food industry
During the visit, Brady Bishop senior director of market access for Elanco, the animal health division of Eli Lilly (another big company), presented information and data on how consumer demands for certain claims on chicken (antibiotic-free, cage-free and, yes, GMO-free) are affecting sustainable production of chickens available to eat, while simultaneously contributing to consumer confusion.
It struck me that the agricultural industry is now experiencing a similar situation to what pet food has been facing for several years now: a growing demand and clamor for “no” and “free-from” claims on products that haven’t necessarily helped consumers sort among the many options available on the market. Considering that segments of both industries helped stoke – if not create – these demands with their negative label claims, it’s telling that agriculture seems to be having as much difficulty as pet food still has in trying to deal with the ongoing and increasing confusion.
Bishop offered a suggestion that’s at least a step in the right direction: “Make 'yes' the new 'no.'” As in, emphasize what is in your products, using science and facts but in consumer-friendly and relatable terms. For example, Fair Oaks has a brand of dairy products called Fair Life. Rather than use “no” claims, its labels emphasize positives such as the protein content, animal care, sustainability and lower costs. Similarly, last year Campbell Soup Co. began declaring on its labels which products have GMOs, and why.
In the trailer for “Food Evolution,” a woman says, “It’s much easier to sell fear than it is science.” So true; but in the long run, that message does no good for companies, consumers or the animals they care for.