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'GMO-Free' Is A Boon For Companies Chasing 'Health Halo' Profits

People who attended the Chipotle Cultivate Festival in Kansas City, Mo., on July 18 could vote on their opinions about genetically modified organisms after going through an exhibit.
Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media
People who attended the Chipotle Cultivate Festival in Kansas City, Mo., on July 18 could vote on their opinions about genetically modified organisms after going through an exhibit.

The Chipotle Cultivate Festival in Kansas City, Mo., on July 18 had it all: an indie pop band onstage, long lines at the beer booths. It was like a Grateful Dead concert, only with free burritos.

But this and the three other Chipotle Cultivate events held across the country this summer were more than just a classic summertime music festival. Billed as offering "food, ideas and music," the festival offers a chance to "learn a free burrito," by going through four exhibits.

Chipotle, the chain whose slogan is "food with integrity," was the first national restaurant chain to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from most of its menu. Now, the company is going a step further: using its anti-GMO stance as a marketing opportunity.

Alex Jessee, a young mother, went through the "GMO Experience," one of the four exhibits. She says she learned from it "that these GMOs could be harmful to us, the environment, but they don't necessarily have to tell us that we're eating them. Which isn't very cool."

That perspective dovetails nicely with Chipotle's marketing plan. And it's the side more consumers are choosing, too: Surveys show the majority of consumers — as much as 93 percent, according to a New York Times poll — want their food labeled with GMO information. That's even though the world's leading scientists say GMOs are safe.

As sales of GMO-free food skyrocket into the billions, savvy companies are noticing. The demand for those foods falls under what the industry calls the "health halo," the perception that a food is healthful. And that brings us to the marketing of such products as GMO-free potato chips.

"It's almost like the era of Mad Men where the slick marketers and the big money could convince people that things that weren't good for them were good for them," says Cathy Calfo, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers. She says all those people who want non-GMO labels already have one. It's called "organic," and if you buy anything with that green USDA stamp, you will be eating GMO-free food.

Now, organic companies don't want to criticize other food companies, but they do worry that marketing a product as GMO-free can mislead consumers who may think that food is healthful. And they're watching while the demand for GMO-free foods outpaces organics.

"When push comes to shove, the premium you pay for organic foods may be just too much for most families to afford in practice and non-GMO may be a much more affordable sense of wholesomeness that you get," says Lars Perner, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California.

And in a case "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," the California Certified Organic Farmers recently created another label. It reads "Non-GMO & More," which the group hopes will help organics tap into the growing, non-GMO multibillion-dollar business.

Peggy Lowe is a reporter for Harvest Public Media , a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.

Editor's note: A version of this story also ran on Harvest Public Media's site. On Wednesday, at 12:34 p.m., the headline and the story were amended to more closely parallel the version that aired onMorning Edition.

Copyright 2020 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Peggy Lowejoined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.