Along with death, taxes and endless political gridlock, another of life’s certainties seems to be a never-ending activist push for labeling of genetically engineered food ingredients.
Every week, another group, another campaign emerges, each of them designed to convince Americans that the food products they’ve been happily consuming for the past decade or so are deceptive, dangerous and deadly.
For example, the Environmental Working Group, which used to focus on big-picture issues like resource conservation and pollution, is now whining regularly about the “horrors” of GMOs. Their latest online pitch (for contributions, naturally), states that, “Our research team has worked exhaustively to create an informative guide to [GMOs]. If you want to know why GMO food labeling matters, look no further than field corn (sic) and soybeans — some 90 percent of U.S.-grown corn is genetically engineered and about 93 percent of soybeans.”
Of course, that statement begs the question: If GMOs are so dangerous — and 90+ percent of the foods made from corn and soy come from genetically engineered crops — then why haven’t most of us dropped dead yet?
Instead, EWG’s appeal goes in another, very predictable direction: “Donate $10 or more before midnight Friday, and we’ll send you our Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GE Food. We can only continue our important research with your support.”
“Important research” usually translates to “continuous fund-raising.”
Likewise, efforts to put statewide ballot measures mandating GMO labeling in front of voters in selected states continues in full force, despite recent defeats in California and Washington. Sooner or later one of those referenda is going to pass and then the floodgates will open.
Deep thoughts — and dead wrong
So, being the deep thinker that I am, I started to wonder: Would it possible to “road test” voluntary GMO food labeling without the potential backlash most food industry observers predict would occur if one or more manufacturers began using statements such as “Enhanced with bio-engineered nutrients” on their packaging? Maybe that’s possible, I was thinking, if the category was one that didn’t directly impact human health.
Such as pet foods, which are made with numerous ingredients derived from corn and soy.
Boy, was I wrong — about as wrong as the gamblers who bets millions (hello, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.) on the Denver Broncos to defeat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
That’s because the advertising pitch to pet owners is even more over the top than the taglines and branding messages found on the food products we purchase for ourselves.
You think “natural” is a highly leveraged label claim in supermarket aisles devoted to center-of-the-plate perishables, ready-to-eat entrees and microwaveable convenience items? Try strolling down the pet foods aisle at any upscale grocery store. There, such positioning is way over the top.
Here’s but one example, from NUTRO brand dog food, specifically its Natural Choice line (For Sensitive Skin and Stomach). The packaging on the company’s Venison Meal and Whole Brown Rice Formula — and we should all be eating so healthy — states that, “When it comes to your dog’s diet, they deserve the best natural dog food. At The Nutro Company, we believe the best natural ingredients make the best natural dog foods. NUTRO® Natural Dog Food is carefully made with a premium selection of natural ingredients fortified with essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.”
Did we mention “natural?”
That’s just one example of literally dozens. Obviously, baby foods are branded and labeled to appeal to the moms who are doing the purchasing, hence the attempt at culinary sophistication with choices such as Pureed Pumpkin-Apple Blend, and Peach-Apricot Museli and Beef Carrots & Corn Country Dinner.
Babies or toddlers just open their mouths and eat. They wouldn’t know a Country Dinner from a Bistro Buffet no matter what the jar says. But their moms want to believe they’re providing their loves ones with something a cut above “mashed mush.”
Dogs and cats, if they could communicate their food preferences, would demand meat, and lots of it. Anyone who’s owned either of those animals doesn’t have to run a taste test to figure out Fido or Fluffy’s preferred meal.
But with pet food, although the ingredient statement lists “beef, chicken, or turkey”, they’re formulated with large amounts of added vegetable starch and protein, ie, corn and soy. They’re advertised as delicious, healthful servings of fresh meat and poultry, but they contain lots of GMO ingredients.
However, it would be even more problematic to announce that someone’s beloved pet, who generally sleeps on the furniture, begs at the dinner table and gets showered with all kinds of snacks and treats and toys, is consuming genetically engineered food.
I still say the food industry needs to test market voluntary GMO labeling, and do it on their terms, before some state starts requiring them to follow a proscriptive mandate that would be way worse.
But I must admit that my bright idea to launch such an initiative in the pet foods category is, sadly, a bad idea, a poor choice and absolutely the wrong place to start.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.