After a whirlwind of a week for Kellogg-owned Kashi Company, the natural cereal and granola giant has announced its intent to ditch GMOs in two existing product lines by 2014. And by 2015, all new Kashi foods will contain 70 percent organic ingredients and also be Non-GMO Project Verified. While the company was already moving toward non-GMO, what prompted this sudden announcement?
Perhaps it was consumer outrage to an anti-GMO viral photo circulated on Facebook created a PR nightmare for Kashi—one that the company tried to curb with a video response that didn't satisfy consumers. Yesterday, the brand offered a more satisfying response to its customers, and one that's surely capturing the attention of natural retailers as they evaluate their role in effecting healthy change in the market.
That's because the viral photo wasn't circulated by a major organic advocacy group. Instead, it originated from Rhode Island-based The Green Grocer, an independent natural retailer with eight employees.
The store is five years old and is just hitting its stride this year, said owner John Wood. Only two other natural retailers are located on Aquidneck Island with The Green Grocer, and there are no big box retailers to offer competition.
It may seem an unlikely place for the next biggest organic advocate to emerge, but that’s exactly what happened after Vermont resident Nancy Wilson posted The Green Grocer's photo to her Facebook wall with the message, "I love it when stores are brave enough to tell the truth!"
Had she not tagged The Green Grocer in her photo, the retailer may not have been able to watch as the photo topped 11,195 shares (as of today's publication). After being featured on USA Today, the Huffington Post, newhope360, countless blogs and in his local newspaper, Wood tells us his true feelings on Kashi and what the past week means for the future of his store.
Q&A: John Wood of The Green Grocer spills his secrets
Natural Foods Merchandiser: How did this whole thing get started?
John Wood: We had made this decision back in January based on the report put out by The Cornucopia Institute, "Cereal Crimes," calling several natural brands out on the fact that they contained known levels of pesticide residues that were either known hormone disruptors or carcinogens and showing the amount of GMOs that existed in natural cereals.
When we decided we couldn't keep it [the offending cereals] on the shelf, we also realized our customers are passionate about certain products that they really enjoy, and name-brand following can have a strong impact on their purchasing behavior. We decided we had to let people know why we didn't have it so that they didn't go somewhere else to buy it and potentially lose a long-term customer.
So the signs went up in January and then on April 20 we had posted the picture to GrandyOats wall because I saw them at a trade show and they asked about it. Then that Sunday on Facebook it took off. It seemed to me that the spark started with a woman named Nancy Wilson who shared the photo on her Facebook page. [Wilson is not a customer, but saw the photo on GrandyOats wall.]
NFM: What was your initial reaction to the "Cereal Crimes" report?
JW: I was a little nauseated. It was a difficult thing to A) wrap my head around and understand that I was going to have to come to terms with it, one way or another and B) that I had not been more vigilant along the way. We like to make sure we're providing the best options available. It was very troubling, and we were very nervous about the decision, because we felt it could have a negative impact on our business and our sales.
NFM: When you first posted the signs, what was consumer response like in your store?
JW: It was overall very positive. We had people telling us that's why they trust us and come and shop with us—because of our integrity and because we are as passionate about scrutinizing and being careful about what's on our shelves.
NFM: Did you notice any change in business after pulling the GMO containing products (Kashi, Barbara's Bakery, Peace Cereal and Bear Naked)?
JW: We only had a small handful of GrandyOats available when we made the transition and we increased it to the entire line. Those categories have increased. We haven't seen a negative impact in our sales after that decision. Our cereal sales continue to be as strong as they have been despite the fact that we eliminated a bulk of three brands which were one quarter to a third of our entire cereal section.
NFM: Will you continue to post the signs in your store?
JW: Our goal right now is just to continue the education. We see new customers almost on a daily basis. When they come in and see something like that, it’s going to set a tone for their experience and also for their shopping desires. If they happen to be a new customer and they don't see their Barbara's Puffins or their Kashi GOLEAN, then they understand why. That will allow them to be able to make purchasing decisions down the road—whether it's with us or someone else.
NFM: How can other retailers duplicate your success?
JW: I don't think it’s possible to replicate this. If it was, more things like this would take place. I think that's what makes things uniquely viral. It's not a single individual's control—it’s something a large group of people are moved to at any given time.
We used our Facebook business page to get the information clarified about our position and everything that was taking place. That's when people started talking about their opinions and started talking about Kashi. It gave us the opportunity to try and be clear about the fact that it wasn't about Kashi for us. We wanted to encourage people to create a conversation that may be constructive and meaningful in the long run.
NFM: How do you feel about the news that Kashi is pledging to go non-GMO?
JW: I think that's fantastic. And for anyone out there who thinks we had anything to do with that, I would say that is overly optimistic. Something like this doesn't happen in one week. This is something they've [Kashi] had in place for quite some time.
I'm glad that they finally got themselves on solid footing with the statements they released. Hopefully they can shore up some of the discomfort that a lot of consumers are feeling over the past week. I don't feel that they caught up with the movement over the last week very well. If they had released the statement a week ago, a lot of what has taken place may not have gone to the level that it went.
That's a hugely unfortunate piece that's not just Kashi, it's systemic throughout our entire industry now. If you call a company and ask if the product has GMOs you get double speech that doesn't answer the question. And unfortunately it leaves consumers scratching their heads about whether or not they can trust the product. It would do manufacturers well to come out and say a simple yes or no.
NFM: Is this the fault of large corporations buying out smaller natural companies and not knowing how to run them?
JW: I actually had a talk with my Kashi representative [Monday]. He came up to visit me at the store, and it was a nice visit. [The rep] is actually, I think, to a certain extent happy that this has taken place because it forces the company's hand to move forward with plans they already had in place, and to show Kellogg's how serious this subject matter truly is.
It's not just a matter of the folks at Kashi telling Kellogg's this is a good idea and it will be beneficial in the long run. This may actually be more fuel to stoke Kashi's ability to convince Kellogg's—very conservative corporate entity—that this change can be positive and can result in Kashi becoming a leader in that particular sector of industry.
NFM: What message do you think this situation sends to other food manufacturers?
JW: It's a good one. The message being that the American consumer, at least those who want an all-natural product and who's willing to pay more for it and seek it out, is also willing to make it known that they are not willing to compromise. They are very aware of GMOs. I was feeling very good about the fact that a lot of the posts that I saw in regards to this matter, came from people who seemed to be very educated about what GMOs truly are and what dangers they pose to our health and our environment. I think that sends a message that people are no longer wondering what GMOs mean and they're willing to vote with their dollars.
NFM: Would you bring Kashi back?
JW: We carry three of the organic SKUs. That was a misunderstanding somewhere along the line, that we got rid of all Kashi products. That was never true. We believe when a company makes a commitment to doing something right, like doing organic SKUs, the more those SKUs are supported by a store like ours or a consumer, the more likely they [the company] are to pursue those standards and create more products along those lines.
I would personally be more than happy to carry anything that Kashi produces that's USDA Certified Organic. And I would also be willing to carefully evaluate any of the Non-GMO Verified products as well.
NFM: Have you heard from the other brands you pulled from your shelves? They seem to have dodged a bullet here.
JW: I have not. Unfortunately Kashi seems to be the sacrificial lamb in this particular process. Even Dr. Mercola picked up one of our signs, and it was the Bear Naked one. I tried so hard to make it clear that this is not about one brand. This is about our food system as a whole. Even Bear Naked has barely gotten any sort of negative feedback on their Facebook page. But, Kashi's huge.
It's not just about any one company. This is a conversation that needs to continue well beyond this week. Organic agriculture is really the only sustainable way to repair our planet and feed ourselves. I've had a lot of people in the organic movement reach out to me over the past week to express solidarity and gratitude, and as heartening as that is, it's important that we continue the same momentum. As an industry we really have the ability to make change happen, and if we do it together as a unified voice we can probably do a whole lot more than what just happened in the past week.
NFM: What do you think all the press will do for your business?
JW: I don't think it's going to do a lot. We're a small, independent natural and organic foods store in a small Rhode Island town. I think the positive impact long-term for our business will be that the people who are aware of it who are already customers or potential future customers will understand our commitment and may be willing to make a commitment of their own to support our business.
NFM: What advice do you have for other retailers who wish to enact healthy change in our food system?
JW: I would tell them not to underestimate the customer. Customers are hungrier for knowledge than most retailers probably give them credit for. Second, don't be afraid to separate yourself from the crowd. Anything we're selling can be found anywhere else whether it's a Whole Foods, online or at Walmart.
Whatever we're doing can be done somewhere else. It's how we do it that makes the huge difference. When we separate ourselves from our competition, big or small, by making a commitment to certain values, quality, ingredient list, whatever it may be—that's what's going to keep our customers coming back. We as retailers and the organic food movement can then become something of a greater value than anybody else can offer.
NFM: So, what are you tackling next?
JW: [laughs] If I had a formula to be able to make this happen again, I would tackle a huge number of things. But because I don't know if this could ever be replicated, my goals are to continue to educate my staff and my customers. And to try to be the best possible resource I can for natural, organic foods that are free of all the bad stuff that can harm us.