Company sets five-year deadline for GMO labeling

Mar 25, 2013

Whole Foods Market announced earlier this month that, by 2018, all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores must be labeled to indicate if they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The first to set a deadline on what the company refers to as GMO transparency, the move has some wondering if they are wasting their time with their big announcement.

“We are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumer’s right to know,” said Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, in a press release. “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.”

While mainstream media appears to be jumping on the GMO wagon again, consumers don’t appear to be following suit. Just last fall, California’s proposed food label legislation failed, but supporters vowed the fight was not over, and have revamped their campaign.

Despite the new push, the lack of science-based support for the extra labeling is also starting to make waves.

A major study released earlier this month in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded for the first time that a diet can have an effect as powerful as drugs in preventing heart attacks, strokes and deaths from cardiovascular disease. The large study followed 7,447 people at high risk of heart disease, each on one of two diets— a low fat regimen and a Mediterranean one. The Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil and nuts came out a strong winner. The study even ended early, after almost five years, because the results were so clear it was considered unethical to continue, and there was no discussion or consideration of GMOs in the study.

“In evaluating the study results, experts told the Times the new findings contradicted much of the advice of food elitists--not a word about GMOs, for example, or many of the ideas so often found in the Sunday supplements. In fact, the NYT science writer who described the study cited Dr. J. Sanford Schwartz, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania who said that doctors often accept evidence for various low-fat diets they recommend, although such diets have not been tested--and the new tests being reported are revealing cracks in current assumptions,” according to DTN reports.

But those in the protein production business know how the dominos can fall. The pork industry has watched one company after another join in dictating how they should raise animals. Whether or not Whole Foods Market has begun a trend remains to be seen.

Whole Foods ranked No. 19 in FORTUNE magazine’s 2013 “World’s Most Admired Companies” list. The only grocer on the list, the company is also named as the “Most Admired Company” in the food and drug store industry, leading the top ten list of retailers in the category.

The health-food pioneer continues to rack up record sales, and has plans to nearly triple its U.S. store count, reported the magazine, noting that Whole Foods Market “earns high marks from customers (and analysts) for quality that keeps its patrons loyal…” According to Whole Foods press release, the company has been collaborating with many of its supplier partners for several years to source products without GMO ingredients.

“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.

“Whole Foods Market supports that measure and looks forward to supporting other state efforts that may finally lead to one uniform set of national standards,” said Robb.

The New York Times offered an editorial on the Whole Foods topic, pointing out that while advocacy groups are hailing the Whole Foods decision as a possible “game changer” that would push the entire food industry to adopt similar labels, some second thoughts may be in order.

“Whole Foods has a right to do this,” the Times wrote, “But there is no reliable evidence that genetically modified foods now on the market pose any risk to consumers.”

The editorial said its conclusion is well supported.

“The Food and Drug Administration says it has no basis for concluding that foods developed by bioengineering techniques present different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”

And, with regard to the bills that are pending in several states to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified ingredients. “... For now, there seems little reason to make labeling compulsory,” the paper continued.

In addition, the Times noted, “Consumers can already find products free of genetically engineered ingredients, with labels voluntarily placed by the manufacturers. For those who want to avoid such ingredients, the surest way is to buy products certified organic under federal standards. They contain no genetically engineered ingredients, or at most inadvertent trace amounts.”

Last October, Whole Foods had their own version of an undercover video released by, who claimed the company was misleading its customers. The video showed two InfoWars reporters asking customers how they felt about Whole Foods selling GMO foods. This may very well have been the lead in to Whole Foods recent change of heart.

While talking with customers on camera, the reporters were approached by Libba Letton, Senior Coordinator, and Media Relations at Whole Foods Market. She admitted that Whole Foods stores sell unlabeled GMOs. “I don’t think that Whole Foods does anything to try and make people think that we don’t have food with GMOs in them,” she said on camera, which apparently was a shock to some of their dedicated customers according to InfoWars.

InfoWars took credit for the company’s GMO stance in its press release. “The turning point in all this was, in my opinion, the 2012 release of the Organic Spies video in which Whole Foods employees were caught on camera lying to customers about GMOs,” they wrote.

So far, producers have been relatively quiet on the topic, but there are a few companies sharing the potential problems.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association opposes the labeling requirement that Whole Foods has proposed, saying it will mislead shoppers to think that foods produced through biotechnology materially differ from their conventional counterparts, Louis Finkel, executive vice president of government affairs for GMA, told Super Market News. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor