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Natural Selection


The indisputable impact that natural, organic and free-from food products are having on present-day buying preferences needs no introduction to this publication’s readers, the vast majority of whom likely know more about its collective consumer clout than just about anyone on the planet.

Unquestionably, food retailers of all stripes are capitalizing on these three integrated high-growth categories, which continue to gain appeal with today’s more informed and engaged shoppers, increasing numbers of whom are prioritizing “values” over “value” by choosing brands based on key product and ingredient factors over cost and other drivers.

Among the growing ranks of “conscious consumers” — loosely defined as shoppers who base their purchase decisions on the environment, health and wellness — choices are increasingly driven by taste and ingredient attributes, including non-GMO, which this year ranked ahead of organic in purchase priority, according to findings in the 2015 Market LOHAS MamboTrack Research Survey. For the conscious-consumer segment, non-GMO products are key to brand-buying decisions (57 percent), edging ahead of organic (53 percent) for the second year running in the MamboTrack survey, which also found one in two consumers citing “brand that I trust” (48 percent, up from 44 percent in 2014) ahead of “all-natural,” which was less of a factor in 2015 (36 percent, down from 42 percent in 2014) — the latter perhaps as a result of the nebulous meaning of products bearing the “natural” moniker.

Natural Changes Afoot

After years without a federally mandated definition, however, products boasting the “natural” claim are set for a regulatory overhaul if the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (SAFLA) — which the U.S. House of Representatives passed 275-150 in late July — is enacted. If affirmed by the U.S. Senate in identical form, SAFLA — one of the most important pieces of bipartisan legislation drafted in recent years — will move to President Barack Obama for final passage.

There are two notable points addressed in SAFLA:

  • ➤ State and local governments are prohibited from passing laws requiring food products containing GMOs to be labeled as such; any requirement regarding the use of genetically engineered plants for food products that’s not identical to the requirements established under SAFLA will also be prohibited.
  • ➤ The Food and Drug Administration will be directed to formally address “natural” claims on food product labels, as opposed to the present informal policy that foods labeled as natural can’t contain any added colors, artificial colors, artificial flavors or synthetic ingredients. Under SAFLA, a food will be deemed misbranded if its label contains an expressed or implied claim that it’s “natural,” unless the product meets the new requirements and allowable marketing terms established in FDA’s promulgated regulations. States will also be prohibited from making it unlawful for companies to label products containing GMOs as “natural.”

Another significant provision of SAFLA would permit companies to voluntarily label foods that do or don’t contain GMO ingredients, but they wouldn’t be required to do so. The legislation directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a voluntary, nongenetically engineered food certification program — modeled after its certified-organics program in place since 2002 — to administer labeling of non-GMO food product standards. Companies voluntarily labeling products as GMO-free would need to follow a standard established under the legislation, which would direct the creation and implementation of a process to certify GMO-free food under a USDA-accredited certification process.

SAFLA: Trade Groups Cheer, Opponents Jeer

The food industry’s leading trade groups are pushing for full passage of SAFLA, which Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), calls “the only way to ensure that Americans everywhere can access accurate information about the food they purchase.” GMA, a lead proponent of such legislation in its prominent role in the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, previewed at its recent Leadership Forum a new transparency initiative it’s readying to launch early next year.

Echoing Bailey’s sentiments, Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO of Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute, calls SAFLA “essential if we hope to avoid adding to consumer confusion about GMOs, and if we wish to elude unnecessary impediments to interstate commerce, both of which would result from a state-by-state patchwork of muddled, differing and conflicting GMO labeling laws,” such as that of Vermont, which became the first state to mandate GMO labeling (the law is currently being challenged in the courts). Similar efforts to label GMOs have also sprouted in Maine and Connecticut, among other states, while ballot-box measures in California and Washington state came up short.

The Snack Food Association (SFA) is also hopeful that SAFLA moves forward, particularly as it pertains to improved clarity and uniform rules for a national non-GMO certification program and a standardized use of the “natural” term. Without a federal GMO solution, Tom Dempsey, CEO of Arlington-based SFA, warns that “manufacturers will essentially have three options in order to comply with state labeling laws: redesign packaging, reformulate products or halt [intrastate] sales. Small, family-owned companies with just one plant or a single line of production would be hit the hardest.”

Not everyone is cheering the legislation, however, which is referred to by its opponents as the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act. Following House passage of SAFLA, Scott Faber, SVP of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group — and who is also executive director for the Just Label It project in favor of mandatory GMO labeling — vowed that “the fight for a more transparent food industry is only just beginning.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety also registered deep disappointment with SAFLA, blaming “agribusiness cronies [for crushing] the democratic decision-making of tens of millions of Americans.” All told, more than 300 farmer, consumer and environmental groups, including the nation’s second-largest farming group, the National Farmers Union, oppose the bill, instead supporting another bipartisan measure, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which would require food manufacturers to label foods that contain GMOs.

While the focus now turns to the U.S. Senate — where there are early indications of bipartisan support — it remains to be seen whether SAFLA will become the law of the land, or will instead undergo further amendments.

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