By Clare Leschin-Hoar,
When Whole Foods top brass announced this morning that they’d set a deadline requiring labeling of all products that contain genetically modified ingredients sold in their U.S. and Canadian stores, the room, filled with 400 suppliers, exploded with applause. The company’s president, A.C. Gallo, and co-CEO, Walter Robb, received a standing ovation.
And this is indeed big news: Whole Foods is the first national grocery chain to establish a deadline for GMO transparency.
“We’re responding to our customers, who have consistently asked us for GMO labeling and we are doing so by focusing on where we have control: in our own stores,” said Robb in a statement.
Grassroots efforts to get genetically modified foods labeled has been in the works for years. But it was California’s high-profile, failed Proposition 37 ballot initiative that’s given fuel to the GMO labeling momentum in states like Washington, Vermont and elsewhere.
Food items can contain a number of ingredients that come from plants that have been genetically modified, including corn, soybean, canola and sugar beets. While some genetic modification is done to resist disease (as in the case of Hawaii’s papaya crop), commodity crops like corn and soybeans are primarily modified to withstand the herbicide glyphosate or tweaked to resist pesticides. Products containing genetically modified ingredients are required to have labeling in 60 countries, but not in the U.S.
Kate Lowery, spokesperson for Whole Foods, tells TakePart they established a five-year deadline to give suppliers time to source ingredients or change formulations, if necessary, but expect many to comply earlier.
Since 2009, the chain has been working with the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit, third-party verification and labeling organization. Whole Foods currently carries over 3,300 verified non-GMO items from 250 brands. The products are the store’s fastest-growing category of nonperishable items.
While the move is seen positively by industry watchdog groups, including the Environmental Working Group and the Just Label It Coalition, many recall Whole Foods’ absence in the early days of the California labeling effort.
“Had they supported Prop. 37 sooner, Americans may have labeling right now,” said Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now! and co-chair of the California Right to Know Yes on 37 campaign.
It wasn’t until mid-September of last year that Whole Foods finally endorsed Proposition 37, mere weeks before it went before voters. According to the Los Angeles Times, that endorsement came with the stipulation that the company felt that “a 0.5% threshold was too low for exempting a product containing a small amount of genetically engineered content from the labeling requirement. The company also objected to a provision that would allow private attorneys to sue on behalf of the state, alleging a violation of the labeling mandate, should it become law.”
While Murphy says this is a step in the right direction, he thinks the five-year deadline is too generous.
“Whole Foods’ customers shouldn’t have to wait another half decade to get common-sense labeling of genetically engineered ingredients in their products that they sell unlabeled every day,” he tells TakePart.
It’s unclear exactly how the store’s new policy will impact the overall industry, but Lowery says they expect it will have a ripple effect.
“If they’re already labeling for Whole Foods, it will probably appear in other stores because those companies aren’t just supplying product for us,” she says. “That, paired with the state labeling initiatives currently happening? I think it’s going to have a big effect. Suppliers are going to start asking those deeper questions because the consumer is demanding it, and you give the consumer what they want.”