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Encourage informed choice with trust-building transparency

Charlie Arnot Published on 11 March 2014

With so much information – and misinformation – circulating about the pros and cons of genetically modified foods, it’s understandable that the public is concerned and, at times, confused about what to believe.

An increased focus on health has consumers more conscious than ever about what they are eating and where their food comes from.

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As dairy farmers, you want to ensure your cows are healthy and producing a quality product for consumers. Part of a cow’s health, much like a human’s, depends on nutrition. You know that what you feed your animals has an impact on their overall health and on the milk they produce.

Corn and soybeans are the major feed ingredients for animals raised for food in the U.S. About 40 percent of total corn production and 30 million tons of soybean meal goes to feed livestock and poultry each year. Today, more than 80 percent of grain crops used for animal feed, such as corn and soybeans, are genetically modified.

Extensive research has revealed no difference in the nutritional value of genetically modified feed compared to conventional feed. Moreover, there is no evidence that genetically modified feed impacts growth, animal performance or feed intake.

So what’s all the fuss about feed?
Before last summer, the use of genetically modified (GMO) feed in livestock diets wasn’t a focus for anti-GMO groups or for consumers in the U.S. That all changed last July, when the group GMO Inside launched a campaign against yogurt manufacturer Chobani. The group petitioned the company to stop marketing its products as “real” and “natural” until they started sourcing their milk from cows fed non-GMO feed.

Why now? Why Chobani?
Prior to the launch of the GMO Inside campaign against Chobani, the issue of using genetically modified feed in livestock production was primarily limited to Europe, as several UK-based retailers announced they would allow genetically modified feed in their supply chains despite bans on genetically modified crops in the European Union.

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The 2012 defeat of California’s Proposition 37 to label genetically modified foods changed the discussion and led to the formation of GMO Inside. Since the campaign’s launch, the issue has received media attention in the U.S. and has become a topic of discussion among consumers on social media platforms.

The decision to focus on Chobani is no accident: The yogurt is one of the fastest-growing consumer packaged goods brands and the nation’s top-selling Greek yogurt. In addition, the brand is part of a USDA pilot project testing the use of Greek-style yogurt in the National School Lunch Program.

We know that when consumers learned of lean finely-textured beef being served to their children in schools across the country, social outrage kicked in and resulted in the product being removed from schools. The addition of Chobani yogurt to the National School Lunch Program provided an appealing platform for protest.

The Center for Food Integrity’s consumer trust research shows issues perceived to be a threat to food safety have high potential for sparking social outrage. If there is a strong belief that an issue will impact “me or my family,” outrage can break through the clutter of issues the public is bombarded with daily.

What is being said about GMO feed?
Stories on the benefits of GMO feed in livestock diets don’t present a compelling “hook,” whereas stories maligning the technology work to cast enough doubt about its safety to potentially incite social outrage, regardless of their validity within scientific communities.

For example, a Journal of Organic Systems study, the results of which were disputed by many scientists, analyzed differences in pigs fed a diet of GMO feed versus pigs fed a diet of non-GMO feed.

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The study researched 168 newly weaned pigs over a 23-week period and showed the pigs fed a diet of GMO feed experienced a higher rate of severe stomach inflammation than those fed a non-GMO feed diet. The researchers noted, however, that there were no differences in feed intake, weight gain, mortality or blood biochemistry.

In Denmark, a pig farmer claimed the use of genetically modified feed led to deformities, piglet mortality and numerous health issues. Once he switched the pigs to a non-GMO feed diet, he noticed decreased mortality rates and healthier, stronger pigs.

Anti-GMO groups claim that the use of GMO feed in livestock diets may compromise human health and want meat and dairy products from GMO-fed animals to be labeled. However, the safety of food containing genetically modified ingredients is well documented.

How safe are GMOs?
GMOs have been more thoroughly tested than any other product produced in the history of agriculture. In all the risk assessments in more than 15 years of field research and 30 years of laboratory research, there hasn’t been a single instance of a health risk associated with a GMO product.

GMOs have been extensively studied for more than 20 years, and the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community and researchers around the world is that GMO foods do not pose a risk to consumers. The allergen content and nutritional profile of meat, milk and eggs obtained from animals fed GMO feed is the same as products from animals fed comparable conventional feed.

According to Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of California – Davis, “… the digestive tracts of animals break down nucleic acids (genes) and proteins into biological building blocks (nucleotides and amino acids), whether these molecules are derived from GMO or conventional feed. Movement of whole GMO nucleic acids and proteins from GMO feed into the milk, meat and eggs of animals that eat GMO feed is not physiologically possible.”

Dr. Sally McKenzie, professor in the Agronomy and Horticulture Department at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, offers another perspective: “… genetic modification simply introduces a new protein to the plant. Proteins are digested and the amino acids (from the proteins) are absorbed into the digestive system.

So, there is virtually no way that the GMO protein would ever be recognizable by the human system after it has passed through the chicken or cow that ate the GMO corn or soybeans. If the protein is not a human allergen in its intact state, there is no reasonable way that it would become an allergen after ingestion by a cow.”

Media coverage on GMO feed
Where GMO organisms are concerned, the use of GMO feed in livestock diets has not been a focus among mainstream media outlets. Instead, the focus continues to be on labeling of GMO foods, with feed not generally part of the discussion.

Last summer’s campaign against Chobani generated short-lived media coverage, and current media coverage on the issue is in relation to grocer Whole Foods’ decision to drop Chobani from its stores.

The retailer says the move will allow them to carry products that aren’t widely available to consumers, and that Chobani’s use of cows fed GMO diets was just one of several reasons for the move. Negative coverage on the use of GMO feed in livestock diets is primarily limited to lesser-known publications and those with an anti-GMO slant.

This November, measures to label GMO foods will likely appear on ballot initiatives in several states, possibly including Oregon, Colorado and Arizona, and the topic is sure to broaden to include GMO feed as anti-GMO groups continue to pressure companies and brands.

The time is right to publicly engage on issues in farming and food most relevant to today’s consumers, most of whom are more than two generations removed from the farm.

The Center for Food Integrity’s consumer trust research over the years has shown that shared values are three to five times more important in building trust with consumers than demonstrating competence.

By joining the discussion and providing balanced, credible information, you can help consumers understand that you, too, are a consumer who wants to provide safe food for your family and the world. PD

Charlie Arnot is the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity.

charlie arnot

Charlie Arnot
CEO
Center for Food Integrity

Consumers say ‘Be more transparent’

Last year, the Center for Food Integrity asked consumers what it would take for them to not hate Big Food. The answer was loud and clear. Be more transparent about processes and products. We dove into defining transparency and what specifically consumers expect from trustworthy farms and food companies. We identified and measured the impact of seven basic elements of trust-building transparency:

Accuracy – Provide information that is credible, reliable and complete.

Motivation – Demonstrate that your motives are aligned with public interests and not exclusively driven by maximizing profits. Consumers understand businesses need to be profitable but are skeptical that companies will put public interest ahead of maximizing profit.

Disclosure – Publicly share both positive and negative information that helps your stakeholders make informed decisions. Make the information timely, easy to find and easy to understand.

Stakeholder participation – Ask your stakeholders for input on important issues. Make it easy for them to provide and acknowledge their feedback. Explain how and why you make decisions.

Relevance – Ask your stakeholders what information is important to them and provide information they deem relevant.

Clarity – Provide information that is easy for your stakeholders to understand.

Credibility – Take responsibility and apologize when you make mistakes. Involve stakeholders and explain plans for corrective action. Demonstrate you genuinely care about issues important to your stakeholders.

External resource links
Visit The Center for Food Integrity website to learn more about CFI’s consumer trust research on trust-building transparency and social outrage factors.

Visit the Best Food Facts website for facts about all things food.

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