The vast majority of American consumers don't care whether their foods contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Food executives and think tanks will tell you that and cite, for example, how Indiana local bakery Aunt Nellie's bombed when it introduced a specifically labeled "non-GMO" bread a couple of years ago.
But California isn't most of America, with a more health-conscious outlook than most states. That's why mainstream food companies are in a hot and heavy contest against GMO opponents over Proposition 37, The Right to Know Genetically Modified Food Act, a piece of state legislation that, if passed in November, would require GMO-containing products to disclose that on labels, and make California the first state to mandate genetically modified food.
Similar to what happened to automakers after California took an extreme position on cutting emissions, essentially imposing that higher standard on cars sold all over the country, food and beverage companies are concerned that California will serve as a bellwether in GMO labeling regulation as well.
In a particular bind in this fight are the many mainstream food conglomerates that now own organic brands, which by definition don't include GMOs: Kellogg, owner of GMO poster brand Kashi; General Mills, owner of the Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, Larabar and Food Should Taste Good brands; Coca-Cola, owner of Odwalla and Honest Tea; PepsiCo; and Dean Foods, owner of Horizon Organics.
Each of those companies has contributed substantially to funding an effort to opposed Proposition 37 on California's November 6 ballot. They say they want a national-level measure on GMOs, anyway, and complain that the Golden State proposition would saddle farmers and the industry by dramatically raising costs — as well as unfounded concerns about the safety of GMO products. Europe has had such regulations for 15 years.
The predictable result of the political fight has been stress within the organic brands themselves and distress on the part of many of their consumers, who have peppered social-media sites with complaints to their organic "friends" about the funding behavior of their parent companies.
"Consumers aren't always aware that their favorite organic brands are in fact owned by big multinationals, and now they're finding out that the premium they've paid to buy these organic products is being spent to fight against something they believe in passionately," Mark Kastel, a co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic-industry watchdog and farm-policy group, told the New York Times, which looked at the role that Monsanto and DuPont was playing in lobbying against the bill. "They feel like they've been had."
As the Times notes, a wide array of brands are getting caught up in the Proposition 37 dogfight, including Whole Foods and Canadian brand Nature's Path:
Whole Foods, the retail mecca of the organic and natural foods movement, said it supported the California proposal, though with some reservations over the details — and without putting any money into the effort in accordance with its policy, a spokeswoman said. Nature’s Path, an independent business, has put more than $600,000 into supporting the ballot initiative — even though it is a Canadian company. Some 70 percent of its sales and most of its production take place in the United States, said Arran Stephens, president of the company, but that is not why it is one of the biggest supporters of Proposition 37.
The Yes on 37 coalition has just launched a new campaign to get the word out ahead of the Nov. 6th voting day decision, while a handful of brands have contributed to the "pro" side of the proposed GMO labeling measure, including Organic Valley, Clif Bar and Amy's Kitchen.
A recent poll showed that nearly two-thirds of likely California voters favored Proposition 37. So despite their multi-million-dollar campaign to defeat the measure, food companies seem likely to experience the same kind of "California effect" that has influenced automakers.
In the meantime, what's a brand to do? If you're Kashi, for instance, you post the image below on your Facebook page along with a cause marketing message addressing the nutritional needs of kids in the swing state of California as their elders gear up to vote on Nov. 6:
We are proud to announce Common Vision as our next REAL Project non-profit! Share the statistic here and we will donate $10 to Common Vision and give children in schools across California better access to fresh fruit from schoolyard orchards.