Early last month, Whole Foods Market, the nation's largest grocery chain focused on organic and natural products, made a major announcement: It will require all vendors to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients by 2018. The responses have been all across the board from extremely supportive to highly critical.
Whole Foods is no stranger to criticism. From its less-than-flattering "Whole Paycheck" nickname to controversial comments made by co-founder John Mackey likening Obama's Affordable Care Act to fascism, the retailer is well aware of public scrutiny and the demands of being the nation's leading resource for healthy food and lifestyle products.
The chain also received a fair share of denigration for the way it supported California's Prop 37 ballot measure that failed to pass last November. The measure's campaign was funded by many of the brands Whole Foods stocks in its stores, and was poised to become the nation's first GMO labeling bill that could have had ripple effects across the country. Critics said Whole Foods was late to the campaign and could have helped it by donating a large amount of funds. (Whole Foods and Monsanto have roughly the same annual revenue of around $11 billion; Monsanto donated more than $8 million to oppose Prop 37, Whole Foods donated just $25,000 to support it.) Then, the faceless investigative group, Organic Spies, made matters worse by releasing undercover video footage taken at Whole Foods locations throughout California showing grossly misinformed staff giving false information about genetically modified foods and the chain's policies on GMOs.
Some say the criticism over Prop 37 prompted Whole Foods' move to announce a GMO labeling initiative. President and Chief Operating Officer, A.C. Gallo, says that the retailer came out for mandatory labeling years ago. And although some people weren't happy with how Whole Foods supported Prop 37--even blaming the chain for the campaign's ultimate failure--Gallo says the campaign helped open up the national dialogue about GMOs. The concerns over genetically modified foods (and there are plenty of them from human to environmental health issues) have become enough of a source of confusion for Whole Foods shoppers that the chain finally, and to the surprise of many, decided to do something about it. "When [Prop] 37 didn't pass, we realized there's a chance that maybe none of these [state initiatives] will pass, so we couldn't rely on the legislative process to make this happen. What we can control is what's in our stores," said Gallo.
One of the biggest complaints about the announcement has been the 5-year time frame. Some call it a cop-out, suggesting that state or federal regulations could be in place by then, relieving Whole Foods of the responsibility. But, that's not the case, says Gallo, "We wanted to give ourselves time to deal with everything. It's better to set a date we can make, rather than a short one we might miss." Gallo cites the chain's transition to phase out Monterey Bay Aquarium red-rated seafood as an example. They gave themselves a three-year timeframe, but achieved it in two years.
"Transparency means full transparency," says Gallo. And with no labeling required of GMOs anywhere in the country, there are a lot of variables to consider. The chain has committed to labeling GMO foods in every category of the stores. Only a few fruits and vegetables are genetically modified, Gallo cites as an example (Hawaiian papaya, sweet corn and several squash varieties), so the produce department may get a sweeping label that says all items are GMO-free. But other areas of the store—particularly dry grocery—will require much more discernment. Common GMO ingredients in processed foods include corn and soy-derived products, sugar beets, and canola oil. And because many vendors aren't even aware of whether or not they're purchasing GMO ingredients, that process will take time. The chain actually made the announcement public even before alerting their vendor partners, who are really the ones the burden falls on. So they know there are going to be processes, questions and time to sort out a labeling system that won't confuse customers.
Receiving quite a bit of praise is the commitment to label meat, eggs and dairy products that come from animals fed GMO ingredients. This was not covered in California's Prop 37, but Gallo says Whole Foods will require labeling on any animal product where GMOs were involved. Along with Trader Joe's and several other large retailers, Whole Foods has already committed not to sell GMO salmon should the expected FDA approval on Aqua Bounty Technologies' AquAdvantage fish make it the first genetically modified animal in the food chain.
They're also planning to focus on microingredients such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which often come from GMO corn. This is a ubiquitous ingredient found in many processed foods as well as supplements. Body care items and even pet foods will also be included in the labeling requirements.
"Of course, people can buy organic, which is non-GMO," Gallo says, and Whole Foods along with many of its vendors are working with the Non-GMO Verified Project to certify items as GMO-free. But it's not just enough for consumers to know which items are definitely GMO-free at this point. They want to know where the GMOs are. And even some products that aren't 100 percent certified organic can contain both organic and GMO ingredients, confusing consumers even further.
Gallo couldn't say whether or not the chain plans to segregate GMO items in the stores, or phase them out entirely, "we want our consumers to be able to decide," he said. That may mean that once items are labeled as containing GMO ingredients sales will drop and the stores will replace those items with non-GMO products, but for now, transparency is their number one goal.
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