THE BLOG
07/23/2015 01:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Shoppers on a Mission: How Consumer Demand for Transparency Is Changing Our Food

by guest blogger Courtney Pineau, associate director of the Non-GMO Project

As anyone with access to social media knows, our food system is having a public relations crisis. From pink slime to glyphosate, it seems the unfortunate hidden ingredients in our meals are being highlighted in an almost daily barrage of tweets and Facebook posts. While a social media post can appear to be trivial with its fleeting impact, the truth is the collective strength of the online consumer voice is changing our food system for the better.

Just over a year ago, General Mills announced that it was removing the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from Cheerios. The brand had been the focus of a campaign by the group GMO Inside asking the company to eliminate GMOs from one of the nation's top-selling breakfast cereals. The outcome? Tens of thousands of shoppers were commenting on the Cheerios Facebook page and watching a video highlighting the GMOs in the cereal (it was watched more than 200,000 times), and within months the company was announcing its move to reformulate the classic cereal without GMOs.

Likewise, in the spring of this year Abbott announced that it would be offering a non-GMO version of its best-selling Similac Advance infant formula. In a quote featured in The New York Times, Chris Calamari, general manager of Abbott's pediatric nutrition business, said, "We listen to moms and dads, and they've told us they want a non-G.M.O. option...we want to make sure we meet the desires of parents."

Like General Mills, Abbott (along with other companies that produce formula) had been the focus of consumer campaigns on social media to pressure it to move away from the use of GMOs. Both companies responded to this pressure with self-made non-GMO claims, and consumers continue to push them to back their commitments with third-party verification.

Outside of consumer-mobilization campaigns like the ones that General Mills and Abbott experienced, the consumer voice is still heard loud and clear. Chipotle has been making headlines over the past several years with its transparency commitment that includes posting all GMO ingredients on the company's website and systematically removing the products with GMOs from its menus. While some in the media have criticized Chipotle's progressive approach, its efforts have overwhelmingly been rewarded: Stocks surged after the initial announcement in 2014, and sales have continued to climb.

At the Non-GMO Project, one of the first questions we ask companies when they seek Non-GMO Project Verification for their products is, "Why are you seeking verification?" We consistently hear that it is due to consumer and retailer demand. This demand has translated into close to 2,000 brands working with the Non-GMO Project to make sure that their products follow best practices for GMO avoidance. Third-party verification by the Non-GMO Project ensures that products have met the Non-GMO Project's rigorous standard for GMO avoidance, which includes ongoing testing along with stringent traceability and segregation measures.

The team at the Non-GMO Project believes strongly in the power of the consumer voice. We have been verifying products since 2010, and in that time, more than 30,000 products have become Non-GMO Project Verified--a testament to the demand for GMO transparency.

On the Non-GMO Project website, we have a portal for consumer-product verification requests. Through this form, we collect verification requests for specific products. We use these requests in conversations with companies to help them gauge the interest their consumers have in seeing the brand's products get Non-GMO Project Verified. This is just one way that consumers can continue to make an impact on the products they purchase.

Here are more examples of how shoppers can take action:

1. Give companies your feedback--both positive and negative. Use social media and company feedback forms to let companies know what you would like to see in their products.

2. Spread the word. When companies do the right thing, take the time to let other people know about it. Positive word of mouth is one of the most powerful reinforcements for brands.

3. Shop your values. Purchase products from brands that are doing the right thing. At the Non-GMO Project, we offer a shopping app for iOS and Android devices, along with an online directory to help make your Non-GMO Project Verified purchasing decisions easier.

4. Talk to your food retailer about its purchasing policies. Many natural foods retailers have internal policies about the types of products they stock on their shelves. Let them know the types of products you'd like to see.

5. Get active in your local community. Whether your passion is non-GMO, organic, fair trade, support of local agriculture, or support of healthy school meals, there are great ways for you to bring your energy into your community. Many brands are willing to support meaningful local projects, and it's an awesome way to let brands know what you care about.

Courtney Pineau is the associate director of the Non-GMO Project, which offers North America's only third-party verification for products produced according to rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance. In recent years, this mission-driven organization has begun profoundly impacting the food supply in the U.S. and Canada. From the time she was a young child, Courtney's two favorite places to play and explore have been the kitchen and the garden. Her passion for growing food and nourishing the people she loves has inspired her ongoing commitment to ensuring that all people have access to safe and healthy food.

For more from Maria Rodale, visit www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com