Whole Foods Commits to Full GMO Transparency

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The United States is currently the world’s largest market for genetically modified organisms (GMO)—foods including soy milk, soup and breakfast cereals (made with soybeans), corn and other biotech crops manipulated to make them more resistant to insects and pesticides. 

The debate over GMO labeling for organisms genetically engineered by introducing changes into their DNA structure continues to grab the attention of consumers and brands, exacerbated by the November 2012 defeat of Prop 37, a mandatory labeling initiative introduced on the California ballot. Large corporations including PepsiCo and Monsanto spent millions of dollars against Prop 37 and it was defeated. 

Now Whole Foods Market is picking up the gauntlet and committing to full GMO transparency. Whole Foods—which made the announcement at the Natural Products Expo West—has committed to labelling all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores that contain genetically modified organisms by 2018.[more]

“We are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumer’s right to know,” according to a blog post on the grocer’s website. “The prevalence of GMOs in the U.S. paired with nonexistent mandatory labeling makes it very difficult for retailers to source non-GMO options and for consumers to choose non-GMO products. Accordingly, we are stepping up our support of certified organic agriculture, where GMOs are not allowed, and we are working together with our supplier partners to grow our non-GMO supply chain to ensure we can continue to provide these choices in the future.” 

As Whole Foods noted in a response to a Facebook comment, “the deadline is 2018, meaning that every product in our store will be labeled by then. Fortunately, many of our suppliers are already well on their way to moving to Non-GMO ingredients & a good number are already there.”

The U.S. does not require safety testing for GMO’s and while many in the food industry claim the products are safe, critics are railing against the status quo, calling for labeling and additional testing requirements. “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,” the blog said.

The European Union imposed mandatory labeling in 1997, virtually abolishing GMO products from their food chain.

“The fight over labeling GM[O] food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are,” wrote Prop37 advocate, writer Michael Pollan. “The fight is about the power of Big Food.” 

In January, a stunning public apology and anti-GMO reversal from British environmentalist, author and Oxford University visiting research associate Mark Lynas caught media attention. “I want to start with some apologies,” he said. “For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

The reason for his change of heart? “I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.” His speech went viral, with Lynas concluding, “The GM debate is finished. We don’t need to continue to discuss it. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.” 

Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt and chairman and founding partner of the Just Label It campaign remains a vocal proponent of GMO labeling: “Our government’s failure to require labeling, and to be engaged in developing the science supporting GE food risk assessment is an absolute breach of its responsibility to the American public.” 

“There are in fact lots of reasons to label these foods: health and environmental concerns, ethical/religious views or just because people want to know. In fact, Mellman research shows 92 percent of citizens want the right to know with no meaningful statistical difference between men and women, Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural communities, education level or any demographic.”

Whole Foods started its 365 Everyday Value product line through a non-GMO verification program in 2009 and currently sells 3,300 non-GMO Project verified products. 

While it seems that non-GMO support is growing among smaller distributors, Big Food and the U.S. government have other plans. Soon, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will consider approval of genetically engineered salmon.

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