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Getting serious about biotech.

It's past time for retailers--and the industry as a whole--to become fully versed in the issue of biotechnology and the potential implications.

Until recently, it's been easy for retailers to ignore the issue of biotechnology. Easy, because the impact of genetically modified foods has not really been felt at the store shelf. And easy, because the majority of consumers remain ambivalent about bioengineering. "Our research is showing us that right now consumers have not made up their minds on biotech," says Gene Grabowski, vice president, communications, Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA). "We've been tracking this for about two years, and consistently we find that there's a core of about 16% to 17% of people in this country who oppose biotech and a core of about 18% to 19% who are in favor or biotech, and in the middle are people who are still making up their minds."

But recent events make it clear that retailers who continue to ignore biotech do so at their own peril. Start with the StarLink situation, which continues to haunt the biotech business and which hit closer to home for the food industry as it impacted products with a well-known brand name from a well-known manufacturer. And although most retailers were not inundated with customers returning taco shells, awareness of biotech among consumers almost certainly was raised as a result of StarLink.

That awareness is likely to continue to grow as pressure from consumer advocacy groups mounts, catching retailers in the crossfire. For instance, in mid-April Trader Joe's supermarkets in 14 cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston, were the targets of the first socalled "National Day of Action" organized by activists such as GE Free L.A., the Safe Foods Campaign and Greenpeace. The purpose of the action, according to the organizations, was "to demand an end to the use of genetically engineered foods."

Shaw's Supermarkets and Star Market stores have also been pressured by organizations like the Safe Foods Campaign to remove all genetically engineered ingredients in their store brands until labeling standards are in place. The chains, both owned by British-based J Sainsbury, have posted information about bioengineered foods on their website, including a statement related to labeling: "Consumers have a basic right to know the relevant information about the products that they buy, including information about genetically modified foods or foods containing genetically modified ingredients. We support the role and responsibility of FDA to determine appropriate food labeling."

Indeed, the issue of labeling has the potential to significantly affect the industry. Labeling initiatives are being pushed in a number of states, with others sure to follow. Although the FDA has thus far not required labeling of GMOs unless the bioengineered food is materially different from its conventional counterpart, the issue is not going away. And it should not be ignored given the enormity of the potential impact on the industry. GMA notes that as much as 70% of the processed food that's now in the supermarket may contain biotech ingredients. Consider the cost and confusion involved with relabeling 70% of the products currently on grocery shelves.

And then there's the prospect of a quagmire of varying laws should different states enact their own individual--and inconsistent--labeling requirements. While such a situation may seem unlikely, it's not without precedent. "If you go back to the early '70s, we had counties, let alone states, passing anti-phosphate or controlled-phosphate legislation," says Gary Breissinger, vice president, global customer business development, Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati (see "Taking charge of biotech," page 24). "Some set it at no more than 7%, others said 3% and some put it at 1%. At one point, we had 55 or 60 different formulas of Tide selling in the United States because of the number of different regulations."

In and of themselves, situations such as StarLink or a protest by a handful of activists or a labeling initiative in a state far away may not seem like a big deal, but if these incidents serve to chip away at the public's confidence in the food supply, the industry runs the risk of being put on the defensive. "Consumers are going to listen to who they feel comfortable with," says David Wills, principal, Peat Institute, Washington, D.C. "Who has that role? Right now, by and large, it's the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations, or consumer activists]. They can advocate their cause vigorously and intelligently and cost your industry a great deal of money."

It's past time for retailers--and the industry as a whole--to become fully versed in the issue of biotechnology and the potential implications. "The more we ourselves can be educated on all these issues the better we can educate the consumer," says Joanne Gage, vice president, consumer marketing services, Price Chopper Supermarkets/Golub Corp., Schenectady, N.Y. "Sometimes in the past, it could take a couple of years before retailers really understood an issue enough to deal with it. I think we need to get ahead of the curve on the issue of biotechnology--all of us."

If you disagree, think what happened the last time the industry failed to get ahead of the curve on a critical concern facing the industry. It ended up with Wal-Mart in its backyard.
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Author:DONEGAN, PRISCILLA
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:868
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