Policy or perception? Companies reject newly-approved GMO produce
Genetically modified non-browning apples and more durable potatoes will soon be available in your local grocery store, but some major food producers and already turning their back on the so-called Franken foods.
Health Canada has approved two varieties of Arctic apples from B.C.’s Okanagan Specialty Fruits, and the Food and Drug Administration just approved six potatoes varieties form the Boise, Idaho-based J. R. Simplot Co.
Both agencies insist that the produce, grown from seeds engineered in a lab, pose no health risks, and are as healthy as their non-modified counterparts. But that hasn’t stopped a major pushback from heavyweights in the food industry.
Fast food giant McDonald’s, one of the biggest purchasers of potatoes in the U.S., says its policy is not to source GMO potatoes – and it won’t buy the new varieties.
French fry and potato foods suppliers McCain and ConAgra are echoing that sentiment, saying the people who buy their potato products don’t want the modified spuds.
"All Lamb Weston frozen potato products are made with non-GMO potatoes, in line with customer demand," ConAgra told the Associated Press.
Smoke and mirrors
But while these companies are making public denouncements, marketing experts say the hard-line stance is much more about public perception than corporate policy.
“Many Canadians are concerned about genetically modified foods because they think they're a risk to themselves and the health and the environment and so these brands are responding to that consumer sentiment -- that the consumer is always right,” said University of British Columbia marketing professor Dave Hardisty.
The consumer behavior expert says the majority of foods sold in Canadian grocery stores – 70 per cent – are already genetically modified, and that those items are not required to be labelled.
“So many Canadians are already eating genetically modified foods and don’t even realize it,” he said.
B.C. apple growers have already sounded the alarm over a lack of labelling on the new engineered apples.
Fred Steele of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association said he’s concerned the apple industry as a whole could take a hit if consumers aren’t able to make an informed choice in grocery stores.
“It’s become an emotional issue,” he told CTV News. "If this thing works in the marketplace, I'm fine with that, but I am not fine with the situation of uncertainty."
The B.C. company behind the GMO apple says they understand consumer concerns, but say there’s no reason for them.
"All we've done is turn a gene off, so there's no foreign proteins. That apple is the apple you've always eaten," said Okanagan Specialty Fruits President Neal Carter.
"I understand people's concerns but I also know that those people probably haven't spent much time to see what was done to assess the science."
The McFood issue
Amid declining sales and increased competition from chains like Chipotle and Panera Breads that promote healthy and wholesome ingredients, McDonald’s is among corporations trying to get in front of the GMO issue.
By rejecting GMO potatoes publically, McDonalds is hoping to look more wholesome, says Hardisty.
“People don’t see McDonald’s as real food. They’ve been in the middle of a big marketing campaign to make their food seem healthier. And that could be a potential landmine if they brought in new genetically modified foods,” he said.
A recent survey of people in B.C. and Alberta by Insights West found that most would support a ban on GMO foods. Young people in general held a negative view of GMO foods, and across both provinces those who held negative views viewed those foods as unhealthy.
But as more genetically modified foods are approved for production, it will be harder for consumers to avoid them.
Currently, there is no mandatory labeling of GMOfoods in Canada or most of the U.S. Yet, around 90 per cent of corn and soybeans produced in North America is genetically modified.
“These potatoes and apples, people say they don’t them but they’re still going to show up in grocery stores, they won't be labelled and people are going to see them and buy them just like other genetically modified foods,” said Hardisty.
Watch the Steele Weekly Show at 3:30 p.m. Saturday for the full story on the GMO battle heating up in B.C.