4 December 1998

Retailers split over future

By Jonathan Riley

RETAILER views on genetically modified organisms range from "fairly positive" to "set against" as they try to gauge the strength of public feeling behind polls which show 51-77% of consumers consider GMOs unacceptable.

The latest source of detail on public and retailer opinion is from agro-chemical and biotechnology company Monsanto.

A leaked document from the firm shows that, despite spending £1m on an advertising campaign promoting GMOs this year, consumer reticence towards GM foods is growing and possibly at an accelerated pace.

It shows the number of consumers deeming GM foods unacceptable rose from 35% to 44% in the year to June and continued to rise to 51% this autumn.

Monsantos retailer survey, which included Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco, Asda, Safeway and CWS, shows retailers are divided about the long-term future of GM food.

Some retailers felt GMO-based food would be accepted barring a catastrophe. Others felt the long-term outlook is bleaker and that GMOs would follow the pattern set by irradiated foods which culminated in a total rejection by consumers.

But a spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said most members were taking a cautious, but fairly positive approach. "Only two of our members are in opposition to GM foods – Iceland and Asda. Their views are not the norm and will probably never be."

He added that he was fairly certain that the chemical companies predictions of better product quality, better taste for the consumer and much reduced costs to the retailer would bear fruit.

Cautious welcome

A spokesman for Tesco reflected the BRCs opinion, saying the retailer cautiously welcomed the suggested advantages offered by GMs. But polls appear to show increasing concern among customers. "We want to reassure the public that we too recognise that genetic modification raises environmental, safety and ethical concerns. Only where a GM product can be shown to offer our customers real benefit and only when we are sure that it is completely safe will we sell it.

"Our primary concern is offering choice and for every GM food line we will offer a traditionally produced alternative. But we will not be selling foods with modified animal genes," said the spokesman.

Tesco is to highlight the inclusion of GMOs with an asterisk in the ingredient list. All organic products, meanwhile, would be labelled as free from GM material.

"We are also taking the lead in customer assurance by labelling GM soya oil and lecithin. Although its a legal requirement to label protein derived from GM soya, there is no legislation forcing us to label these oils

"Our next objective is to get our suppliers to segregate GM and non-GM crops and raw materials."

Frozen food retailer Iceland, echoes Tescos call for segregation of GM raw materials and called on other retailers to lobby for segregation.

But Icelands technical manager, Bill Wadsworth, says it holds the lead in consumer choice, because it acted on consumer survey results and guaranteed the safety of its customers by sourcing GM free soya derivatives for its own-label products.

Icelands survey, carried out by pollster Gallup, showed 64% of consumers were aware of genetic modification. Of these 77% had reservations about their use in food. Only 4% said they were very likely to buy GM foods.

Own-label rethink

"That meant our customers were not happy with 60% of the 2500 lines we sold and we acted swiftly to ban GMO based products for our own label," said Mr Wadsworth.

"When we declared our intentions to include only 0.1% to 1% GM ingredients in our products last March, the food industry in Britain mocked us and told us it was impossible to source non-GM soya."

He said that not only had Iceland achieved this, but it had achieved its aim without any impact on price to the consumer. &#42


&#8226 51-77% of consumers think GMOs unacceptable.

&#8226 Retailers divided – some believe benefits to be had, others for ban.

&#8226 Value to consumers needs showing.

&#8226 Labelling essential.

&#8226 Segregated supplies desired.

Supermarkets are keen to exploit any benefits to be had from GM crops, but only if consumers accept the technology.