The fight for GM food labeling looks set to continue in 2014, with eco-labels benefiting from each battle at the ballot box. As will be shown at the upcoming Sustainable Foods Summit, sales of certified eco- labeled products are soaring in the US because of growing consumer interest in food origins.
Although the dust has settled on the Washington I-522 ballot, both sides of the pro-and anti-labeling camps are preparing for another year of campaigning. The Washington and California initiatives may not have passed, however they have succeeded in raising consumer interest and retailer support for food labels.
North America is experiencing a surge in certified food product sales as consumers seek greater transparency. This development is leading to a proliferation in eco-labels, such as Organic, Rainforest Alliance, and Certified Humane; these labels provide assurances to consumers that foods / ingredients are grown according to some ethical criteria.
The furor about GM labeling has helped consolidate organic's position as the dominant eco-label in the American food industry, whilst GM-free labels are the fastest growing. Organic food sales in North America have surpassed US $34 billion. Many consumers are buying organic products because they provide assurance they do not contain GM ingredients. In the absence of mandatory GM labeling, Organic Monitor projects organic food sales to reach US $50 billion by 2018.
GM-free labeled products are also experiencing a sales spike. The market for Non-GMO Project Verified products has grown from zero to US $3.5 billion within a few years. Over 5,000 food products now carry the Non-GMO Project Verified logo in the US.
Retailers are responding by providing greater transparency to consumers. Whole Foods Market is increasing its range of GM-free products; it currently has over 3,300 Non- GMO Project Verified products from over 250 brands. It has made a commitment that all food products with GM ingredients will be labeled as such by 2018. Trader Joe's, another leading natural food retailer, states 80% of its products are GM-free, whilst all its private label products are free from GM ingredients.
Voluntary GM-free labeling schemes and third party certification appears to be the way forward for American food companies and retailers. Mandatory labeling however would bring the US in line with over 60 countries that have such regulations. It would also
benefit international trade: food exports to the EU – the US's main trading partner – have been affected by the absence of GM labeling regulations.
The debate about GM labeling will definitely continue in 2014. It remains to be seen if Oregon and Colorado will be the battlegrounds for the next labeling initiatives. What is certain is that whatever the ballot outcomes, consumers will seek greater provenance from the food they eat and eco-labeled product sales will rise.
The future direction of GM labeling will be discussed at the North American edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit (22-23rd January 2014, San Francisco). The Non-GMO Project, Just Label It! as well as leading food companies, ingredient firms, retailers, certification & inspection agencies and NGOs will be participating at the summit.