Whole Foods announced Friday that it would require products sold in all of its stores in North America to divulge on their labels if they contain genetically modified organisms [GMOs] by 2018. The retailer says it is just giving consumers what they want.
But GMO proponents say the retailer will be misleading its shoppers into believing not only that foods that are not genetically altered are somehow better for them but also that those that are, for example, genetically tweaked to be resistant to spoiling are somehow less healthy. And activists who support food produced with GMOs say the initiative is misguided in that they lead to increased yields and lower prices worldwide.
“Clearly labeled products enable shoppers who want to avoid foods made with GMOs to do so,” Whole Foods simply says on a webpage explaining the forthcoming program. It claims it currently sells 3,300 Non-GMO Project verified products from 250 brands -– “more than any other retailer in North America” –- and will expand the effort by working with its suppliers to either “transition to ingredients from non-GMO sources, or clearly label products containing GMOs by the five-year deadline.”
One thing that’s for certain: the announcement on Friday should eventually change the landscape of the grocery aisles in the U.S. Such labeling is already required in EU markets.
“This is an issue whose time has come,” Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb says. “With cases like horse meat discovered in the U.K., plastic in milk in China, the recalls of almond and peanut butter in the U.S., customers have a fundamental right to know what’s in their food.”
The decision is a “game changer,” Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, tells Stephanie Strom in the New York Times, comparing the importance of the announcement to when Wal-Mart stopped selling milk from cows that were given a growth hormone. That is seen as having been the “tipping point“ for greatly reducing the use of hormones that boost milk production from the food supply.
“We’ve had some pretty big developments in labeling this year,” Hirshberg says, pointing out that 22 states now have some sort of pending labeling legislation. “Now, one of the fastest-growing, most successful retailers in the country is throwing down the gantlet.”
About 20 food companies, Wal-Mart and pro-labeling advocates met in Washington, D.C., in January to discuss the issue as a national initiative to require labeling gained steam in the wake of the defeat of a California ballot proposition to require GMO labeling in November following an extensive and expensive advertising blitz led by Monsanto and DuPont, as Reuters’ Lisa Baertlein reported at the time.
The pro-GMO forces repeatedly have pointed out that organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization all maintain that GMOs are safe. Writing for The Daily Beast, Melissa Leon lays out nine reason consumers should not be “scared of that little [GMO] label on your favorite brand of cereal,” including the observation that they “can be cute.” Leon elaborates: “Glo-Fish, the neon fluorescent zebra fish, were the first genetically altered organisms to be sold as pets.” (Sounds a bit scary to me.)
She also points out that Mark Lynas, who “helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s,” says now that he has “discovered science” and publicly apologized in January for his anti-GMO activities. “To vilify GMOs is to be as anti-science as climate-change deniers,” he said in a speech reported by Slashdot (and rebutted by Jason Mark on GMWatch).
Whole Foods acknowledges that “due to cross-contamination and pollen drift, very few products in the U.S. are 100% free of GMOs,” in its FAQ on GMOs. And some observers say it will be a while before this particular cow gets tipped.
“Although others are expected to follow the Whole Foods lead, it likely won’t be a quick process simply because the issue of genetically modified foods isn’t easy to understand for the public at large,” Daniel Politi writes on “The Slatest” blog.
Advancing the GMO-labeling cause “will be tricky,” James Richardson, SVP of food research firm Hartman Strategy, tells the Los Angeles Times’ Tiffany Hsu. He points out that most consumers have more difficulty understanding the issues with GMO foods in that the risks and benefits are not as clear as cutting down on sugar and salt or knowing if a product includes gluten if you have an intolerance.
“There’s not a big interest among mainstream consumers in avoiding GMO because it requires them to have a fairly complex, intellectual sense of what it even means and why it’s a problem,” he says. “Sugar is much more terrifying than an abstract fear like that.”
As murky as the science may seem to average consumers, they are clearly demanding less artificial ingredients and increasingly transparency, as we’ve reported before, and it seems inevitable that the food industry’s strategy will need to shift from battling the use of labels to more compellingly explaining its position on the benefits of GMOs.