US FOOD companies are rushing to offer consumers thousands of products free of genetically modified ingredients – but are finding the effort costly and cumbersome in a landscape dominated by the controversial biotech crops.
The hurdles are so high that the growing "GMO-free" trend could result in a price spike for consumers, industry experts said.
Eighteen years after GMO crops were introduced to help farmers fight weeds and bugs, they are so pervasive in the supply chain that securing large and reliable supplies of non-GMO ingredients is nearly impossible in some cases.
Just ask General Mills. As one of the world's largest makers of consumer food products, the Minneapolis-based company has hefty buying power in the marketplace for corn, soy, sugar, oats and other commodities needed for its packaged food products.
But when the company announced last month that its 70-year-old "yellow box" Cheerios would be made free of genetically modified ingredients, the effort capped more than a year spent tracking down ingredients that have undergone no genetic modification.
Cheerios is primarily made with oats, for which there are no GMO varieties. But even securing small amounts of non-GMO corn and sugar used to sweeten the cereal was a challenge, officials said.
General Mills said it spent millions of dollars installing new equipment for processing non-GMO ingredients and setting up distinct transportation and handling facilities to keep non-GMO supplies from mixing with biotech supplies.
General Mills is not raising prices for its non-GMO Cheerios right now. But the company sees labelling the cereal as free of ingredients that many consumers associate with health or environmental risks as helping gain market share.
The change came after outside pressure from activist groups who oppose biotech crops. But Tom Forsythe, General Mills' global communication executive who met with the critics about their concerns, said the company's decision was an independent one.
"We did it because we think consumers may embrace it," said Mr Forsythe. "But it is a sizeable investment. And it wasn't as easy as people think. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to do the same with our other products."
General Mills is only the latest of many food companies making the shift. Post Foods said last month that it was altering ingredient sourcing for its Grape-Nuts cereal. Companies making baby foods and frozen dinners are among those offering non-GMO versions.
"A lot of food manufacturers are looking at switching over to non-GMO. The demand is out there," said Aaron Skyberg, director of SK Food International, a North Dakota-based bulk ingredient supplier to US and foreign food companies. "But it is a huge learning curve."
There is no federal standard for non-GMO labelling, so many companies, like Post, are signing up for a third-party verification programme known as the Non-GMO Project.