Chobani yogurt, one of the country's fastest-growing CPG brands, is the latest to come under scrutiny from an activist group over its use of GMOs.
GMO Inside, an organization led by environmental group Green America, is calling on the Greek-yogurt segment leader to stop marketing its products as "real" and "natural" until it stops using milk from cows that are fed genetically-modified feed. The move represents one of the first attempts by US GMO activists to target dairy brands in addition to the cereal, bakery and grocery brands that have previously come under fire.
"So much of the GMO crops are going to animal feeds, so if we could change the way this is happening it could help to convert a lot of cropland back to non-GMO production," Elizabeth O'Connell, campaign director for the GMO Inside NGO, told Advertising Age.
The challenge is a direct hit to Chobani's ongoing "Go Real" campaign, which launched in February. Upon visiting its website, consumers are bombarded with videos and diagrams detailing the brand's natural ingredients, including an illustration that tracks Chobani's farm-to-factory process.
As CPG brands typically have done so far in this debate, Chobani pointed in the direction of arguments such as how GMOs make foods more affordable and how they haven't been proven unsafe.
"GMO is complex and weighs on the balance of our commitments, particularly affordability, as non-GMO ingredients are fewer and more costly," Chobani's statement said. "We are in the infancy of exploring how we as a company, together with our suppliers, will navigate this important issue. We have never made claims that our products are GMO-free."
Another big dairy brand that has already laid out its GMO policy is Ben & Jerry's, the Unilever-owned ice cream maker that has made a reputation of continuing the activism of its two founders. The Vermont-based brand has pledged to eliminate non-GMO ingredients in its US products by the end of this year—as it already has in Europe—or label those vestigial elements that remain into 2014.
Already in the US and Canada, about 80 percent of Ben & Jerry's ingredients by volume are sourced non-GMO. "We're working mostly on the remaining chunks and swirls that we add in at this point," brand spokesman Sean Greenwood told CPGmatters.com.
Another progressive brand, Whole Foods Markets, has committed to labeling all products in its US and Canadian stores that contain GMOs by 2018. Fast-growing Trader Joe's, another bellwether chain, has responded to anti-GMO critics in part by noting the non-GMO choices it gives its customers, including organic foods.
Chobani isn't the only brand coming under fire for blurring the line between "natural" and GMO-free. PepsiCo-owned Naked Juice just agreed to stop using "all natural" to describe its products after settling a class-action suit for $9 million, citing the lack of global "detailed regulatory guidance around the word 'natural.'" Use of GMO soy also is part of the issue with Naked Juice labeling.