RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A law was recently passed in Vermont that requires food made with genetically modified ingredients be labeled, starting next year. Some companies are taking it a step further and getting GMOs out of their products completely. But as Vermont Public Radio's Jane Lindholm reports, only a few of those companies are publicizing that.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, everybody, that was the cowbell for the 2:10 tour.
JANE LINDHOLM, BYLINE: On busy summer weekends at the Ben and Jerry's factory in Waterbury, Vermont, crowded tours leave every 10 minutes. Afterwards, fans of the iconic chunky ice cream head up to the flavor graveyard, where combinations that didn't make the cut are put to rest with a lighthearted eulogy. Visitor Nicole Parrish thought some of the bygone flavors sounded pretty good.
NICOLE PARRISH: Wild Maine Blueberry, from the land of the puffin. Now when we crave you, we turn to the muffin.
LINDHOLM: Another flavor could now be immortalized in that graveyard - gone is Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, one of the company's bestsellers. In its place, you'll now find something called coffee toffee bar crunch.
JOSTEIN SOLHEIM: We have had a lot of praise and we have had some people who sort of feel a little challenged by that choice. And that's totally understandable.
LINDHOLM: CEO Jostein Solheim said the company reworked the flavor after it cut ties with Hershey's, the maker of Heath Bars. The Heath Bar had to go for Ben and Jerry's to keep its pledge to get genetically modified ingredients out of its ice cream. Most people won't be surprised that Ben and Jerry's is taking a vocal stand on a controversial issue - it's kind of the brand's calling card. But some other mainstream companies are carefully - and much more quietly - calibrating their non-GMO strategies. Original plain Cheerios are now GMO free. They're made by General Mills. But the only announcement was made in a company blog post from January. Grape Nuts, another cereal aisle staple made by Post, are also non-GMO.
MEGAN WESTGATE: We know of a lot of exciting cool things that are happening that for whatever strategic regions get kept pretty quiet.
LINDHOLM: Megan Westgate runs the Non-GMO Project. It has certified more than 20,000 GMO-free products. Westgate says this sector represents $6 billion in annual sales. Target, for example, has about 80 of its own brand items verified with the Non-GMO Project. Nathan Hendricks, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University, says big food producers are trying to gauge what direction consumers are headed in.
NATHAN HENDRICKS: Ultimately these big companies aren't just friends with Monsanto or something, they want to make a profit. And they want to do what's going to be able to make the money.
LINDHOLM: But even as they create GMO-free products, many of these corporations are fighting state initiatives that would require them to give consumers more information about their ingredients. They often fight those battles through the powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association. It has just filed suit over Vermont's GMO labeling law. Even Ben and Jerry's has a conflict of sorts. It may be eliminating GMOs, but it's still owned by Unilever, which put a lot of money towards fighting labeling in California. That might make things sticky for Ben and Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim.
SOLHEIM: You know, as I said, you know, in big companies a lot of things happen behind closed doors. I think we'll leave that conversation behind closed doors.
LINDHOLM: As these large companies work to make GMO-free food, finding ingredients can be a major challenge. Take just two ingredients - more than 90 percent of all the soybeans and corn grown in United States are genetically engineered. That's why Megan Westgate at the Non-GMO Project says a natural foods brand like Kashi, owned by Kellogg's, is transitioning more slowly than many fans would like.
WESTGATE: It does take a couple of years often times. It's a matter of changing contracts with growers and finding areas where non-GMO can be grown successfully and things like that.
LINDHOLM: Ultimately, the consumer is king. And the question of whether or not consumers will want non-GMO products is still up in the air. Back at the Ben and Jerry's flavor graveyard, visitor Nicole Parrish says she's not too concerned about knowing what's in her snack foods.
PARRISH: It's junk food. I'm going to eat it, probably, either way, to tell you the truth. I mean, I try to eat healthy but if I'm going to eat a candy bar, I'm going to probably eat it regardless of what's really in it.
LINDHOLM: Still, many manufacturers are clearly wondering what might happen when and if states enact labeling laws. So they're hedging their bets, fighting state-by-state labeling initiatives but quietly introducing their own GMO-free products in the meantime. For NPR News, I'm Jane Lindholm.
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