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Mary Mazzoni headshot

As Advocates Gripe Over GMO-Labeling Law, One Company Leads

By Mary Mazzoni

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the country's first labeling legislation for genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law this week.

Advocates were quick to express dissatisfaction with the bill when it hit the Senate floor. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, called it a "sham" and a "legislative embarrassment." Food Democracy Now called it a “corrupt bargain.” And multiple groups said it included backdoor dealings with organic food companies and Monsanto, the biotech giant behind the bulk of GMO crops planted in the U.S. as well as the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup).

The final bill represented something of a compromise, and many in the advocacy space were surprised it passed.

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the Just Label It initiative and co-founder of Stonyfield, called the bill "inadequate." And the initiative officially opposed it. (Its gripes, like many of its cohorts', center around the bill's loose definition of GMOs and its focus on QR codes rather than on-pack messaging.) But the news isn't all bad, he told a group of journalists last week. "In the big picture, coming from 2011 when zero consumers had any knowledge" of GMOs, "this is progress."

"But what this law really shines the light on," Hirshberg continued, "is the critical importance of responsible companies now to do the right thing."

And one leading consumer company is out to do just that. Ahead of the bill's passage on Thursday, the nation's leading yogurt maker announced a policy that blows past any federal or state requirements for GMO labeling.

Dannon's big plans

New York-based Dannon plans to adopt an "all-natural approach" for its three flagship brands, Dannon, Oikos and Danimals, president and CEO Mariano Lozano said at a press briefing on Thursday.

Depending on your background, that sentence either made you smile or cringe. While studies continue to show that American shoppers seek out "natural" foods, advocates have longstanding beef with the ambiguity of the term. But for its part, Dannon set a clear internal definition for its "natural" approach -- and its scope may surprise you.

"For us, 'all natural' means fewer ingredients that are closer to nature, clearer labels, that they are ingredients that we can pronounce, that they are not synthetic and are non-GMO," Lozano explained.

Dannon's first round of non-GMO yogurts represent around 10 percent of the company's product portfolio. But that's just the beginning of what industry experts say is a pioneering strategy. Here's the gist:

  • Dannon plans to continue evolving its flagship brands to pivot toward non-GMO ingredients, with the ultimate goal of placing the Non-GMO Project's Butterfly Seal on all Dannon, Oikos and Danimals products. These brands represent half of the milk the company uses and half of its on-shelf turnover.

  • Dannon will label all products containing GMO ingredients nationwide by the end of this year.

  • Starting in 2017, the company will go one step further to ensure the cows in its supply chain are fed non-GMO feed, a first for a leading non-organic yogurt maker.

Going above and beyond on labeling

Dannon's latest announcement doubles-down on prior commitments. The company committed to across-the-board GMO labeling back in April, before the aforementioned bill was even a glimmer in its creator's eye.

"We pledged that for the end of next year," Lozano told TriplePundit after the briefing last week. "But we are having very good progress, so we have high hopes that we can accelerate that commitment. Before the end of the year, we are going to have all our portfolio and all our packaging disclosing any engineered or modified ingredients."

Dannon will use clear, on-pack messaging to denote GMO ingredients, rather than the QR code system mandated by the new bill. Hirshberg of Just Label It, who will work with Dannon as a stakeholder engagement partner on the project, called the QR code system a "gimmick." And Lozano agreed it doesn't go far enough.

"If we put the choices of the consumer at the heart of our strategy, we need to make it easier for the consumer to get to know what is inside each of the products," he told TriplePundit. "We are happy that we are going to be doing so one year in advance. I think that we will set the tone and make it very clear what Dannon’s position is on that."

The next step: Non-GMO feed

Dannon is already a leader in animal welfare: Over 90 percent of its milk comes from farms certified by Validus Animal Welfare Review, a move it made back in 2012. But while consumers continue to gravitate toward more humane products, animal feed is an area that doesn't receive much attention.

So, if consumers don't care, why should Dannon? In short, because feed makes up the bulk of a non-GMO supply chain. Take corn, for example: 40 percent of all corn produced in the U.S. is used for feed, with only 10 percent going toward human consumption, said Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project. "So when we talk about building a non-GMO supply chain, addressing animal feed is really critical," she said at the briefing.

The Non-GMO Project is the only standard that requires continuous testing of animal feed, mainly because such tests are "very difficult." You can't test milk or other products to ascertain whether or not an animal has eaten GMO feed, Westgate explained. Instead, companies must trace their supply back to the feed level. "I can say hands down that verifying animal products is the most complicated part of our standard," Westgate said. "And that’s why this commitment is so historic, especially when you look at the scale that we’re talking about.”

The Non-GMO Project serves as Dannon's third-party verification partner. The food giant will also work with Green America on its quest to move its entire feed supply chain to non-GMO. Alisa Gravitz, president and CEO of Green America, praised the yogurt maker for raising the bar with a multifaceted pledge.

"We are really honored to be collaborating with Dannon on this historic pledge," Gravitz said last week. "I’ve been doing this work for 35 years, and I can tell you that the Dannon pledge is the biggest, boldest, most visionary and most strategic commitment I’ve seen on the part of a major food company."

All Dannon-branded products will make the non-GMO feed switch by the end of next year. Oikos and Danimals will fully transition a year later.

The bottom line

The battle over the efficacy of GMOs is sure to continue. But when it comes to transparency, the statistics are clear: Over 90 percent of Americans want to know what's in their food. And regardless of state and federal legislation, that consumer push will only grow stronger.

Whether Dannon's choice to lead rather than lag proves as "historic" as its partners predict remains to be seen. But shoppers are already taking notice: Dannon's ad for its new yogurts, featuring a "mom hero" who's concerned about food labeling, was viewed over a million times on YouTube in only a week.

It seems the Dannon case study yet again supports what we all suspected: The winners in America's great food fight will be the companies that voluntarily disclose their ingredients and respond to the nation's calls for greater transparency.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/CT Senate Democrats; 2) Courtesy of Dannon

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni