Puffins

The murky waters of our nation’s food labeling system may not clear up any time soon. Genetically modified ingredients still remain hidden in plain sight. But, nonetheless, consumers are finding their way around the dark corners of packaging labels, donning the modern goggles of discernment. Many have developed the ability to tell the difference between suspect ingredients, deceptive marketing tactics and those efforts being made by food manufacturers to deliver a truly healthy and honest product. Technology has afforded consumers the luxury of being able to investigate both corporate ethos and unclearly labeled ingredients at the swipe of a phone app. If the government won’t enforce honest labeling policies, aggravated consumers are poised to take the task into their own hands.

It was consumer outcry that led Barbara’s Bakery, one of the leading “natural” cereal brands, to shift its product line towards becoming 100 percent GMO-free, according to Frederico Meade, the Weetabix-owned company’s vice president of marketing. “We conducted research with over 1,300 natural and organic consumers in the United States. A portion of those users were our most loyal consumers, and they felt strongly that non-GMO verification was important to them,” Meade told the website Bakery and Snacks.

In 2011, Barbara’s was among a handful of well-established natural food cereal brands that tested positive for genetically modified ingredients in third-party lab tests paid for by the food and farm policy group, the Cornucopia Institute. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked part-time with the Cornucopia Institute since May 2012, but this article is not written on the organization’s behalf.) The details were documented in the report: “Cereal Crimes: How “Natural” Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label—A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Aisle.”

While not certified organic, Barbara’s did often use the term “natural” to describe many of its products. And with top-selling offerings including its Puffins family of cereals earning prime real estate in stores like Whole Foods, it’s easy to see how a customer could assume the products were free from genetically modified ingredients.

Use of the term “natural” on GMO-containing foods has landed major food manufacturers with class action lawsuits. Frito-Lay, PepsiCo, ConAgra, Smucker’s and General Mills are just a few of the manufacturers that have been called out for misuse of the term. In a recent settlement agreement, Pepsi’s Naked Juice agreed to remove all reference to “natural” on its product packaging and marketing, and will divvy up $9 million to pay consumers as much as $75 each if they purchased the GMO-tainted juice between 2007 and 2013.

Consumers have gone a bit Howard Beale from 1976′s “Network.” Understandably, they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. For Barbara’s, the consumer backlash over the Cornucopia report was disheartening, and it played a part in motivating the company to make swift changes to become non-GMO certified. “Meeting consumer needs is critical to the success of our brands. From an industry perspective, it’s a huge shift in the food industry, which is driven by consumers,” said Meade. “The path to earning non-GMO certification isn’t easy and the process can take several months or years depending on many factors.” But now, more than 80 percent of Barbara’s line is non-GMO certified and the goal is 100 percent as soon as possible. But some ingredients are more challenging to find non-GMO, the company reports.

This is certainly progress. But it does bring up a question: If Barbara’s is so eager to earn our trust and loyalty, why didn’t they disclose that their products contained genetically modified ingredients in the first place? Sure, with labeling laws in the U.S. nonexistent, it’s easy to understand that a complicated supply chain is just that. But if the possibility of GMOs existed—which it obviously did—why not be forthcoming about it? What if consumers had never complained in the first place? Would Puffins still be stuffed with GMOs? The answer is most likely a resounding “yes.” And what about the rest of the line—the nearly 20 percent that still contains genetically modified ingredients? If customer satisfaction is more important than profits, why not just pull those products until they can be reintroduced when they’re fully GMO-free?

To move our food system forward, we have to forgive transgressions like these. We have to accept that food manufacturers need time to readjust and respond to the demands of their consumers. That it’s more than just a food choice; these businesses have become vital to our economy. But it doesn’t mean we have to invite them to be part of our meals any longer. It’s only further illustrating the need to shift our diets away from processed foods—genetically modified or “natural”—and take back our food, one bite at a time. To give the power and dollars directly to farmers, small, local manufacturers and other, healthier resources than multinational corporations and their factory-made foods.

It’s inevitable that there will continue to be hiccups with processed foods. Maybe the ingredients clean up and go GMO-free, but what about the packaging? What about labor conditions and supply chains? Where do their profits go? Are they offsetting their carbon footprint? Where does it end if not with what we will or will not allow into our mouths?

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: flickriver