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Whole Foods Market (WFM) is being praised in the media for announcing that it will become the first U.S. grocery chain to require that genetically engineered (GE) foods in its stores be labeled, by 2018. This is a victory for consumers and the GE labeling movement. And it’s a major setback for Monsanto, who for 20 years has worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to uphold the myth that GE foods and crops are “substantially equivalent” to non-GE foods, that they are perfectly safe, and shouldn’t require labels.
But let’s take a look at what led up to the announcement, and how the plan falls short.
It is consumer pressure that has finally forced WFM’s hand. Last year, consumers hammered WFM when the company dragged its heels on supporting California’s Proposition 37, a Nov. 7 citizens’ ballot initiative that would have required labels on all GE foods. The measure was narrowly defeated by a misleading $45-million ad campaign, paid for by the biotech and food giants. After calls and emails to WFM executives, and a fair amount of bad press, the company finally printed up some posters and leaflets, and offered a lukewarm endorsement. But it refused to contribute money to the Yes on 37 campaign.
Believing that the nation’s leading organic retailer should do more, consumers turned up the heat on WFM with the release of an undercover video showing store employees, either because they were misinformed or intentionally misleading, claiming that WFM stores sold no products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The employees’ statements contradicted previous admissions by WFM executives, including CEO John Mackey, that thousands of their so-called “natural” products actually contain GMOs. (By law, only organic foods are required to be GMO-free).
Consumers also hammered many of WFM’s organic and natural brands –“Traitor” brands, as they’re called - like Coca-Cola’s Honest Tea, General Mills’ Muir Glen and Kellogg’s Kashi cereals, because their parent companies had contributed millions to defeat Prop 37. In January, perhaps having realized that their alliance with Monsanto had cost them not only millions in campaign contributions but was also costing them customer loyalty, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, ConAgra, Walmart and a number of other food giants broke ranks with Monsanto. They headed to Washington D.C., to lobby FDA intermediaries for a federal GMO labeling law.
Could that have been the moment when WFM executives saw the writing on the wall? Or did the company just finally decide to live up to its 1998 promise to remove GE ingredients from its private label brands?
Either way, Mr. Mackey, go ahead, take a bow. Don’t get us wrong, we’re glad you’re going to require GMO labeling. But 2018? You can do better. In November 2013, voters in Washington State will get their say on mandatory GMO labeling, when I-522, another citizens’ initiative, appears on the ballot. Expected to pass in a state with widespread support from politicians, farmers and consumers, I-522 will require mandatory labeling of GMOs by July 2015. There’s no reason WFM, which already labels in its stores in the U.K., can’t implement labeling by 2015, too. Consumers shouldn’t have to wait five more years.
And while you’re at it, it’s time to stop bilking consumers by selling billions of dollars’ worth of products under the meaningless label of “natural.” Especially when you know full well that many of those so-called “natural” products contain GMOs, not to mention pesticides, synthetic chemicals and additives. How about being the first to implement a labeling policy with real teeth? A policy that says no product in our store that contains GMOs can be labeled “natural?”
WFM provides a valuable service to consumers in search of organic alternatives. But the company and its executives have made a fortune selling unlabeled and mislabeled products to consumers who choose WFM because it promotes itself as a beacon of health and sustainability. It’s time to live up to that promise. Honestly.
Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins is author of numerous articles and books, including "Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers" (Second Revised Edition Marlowe & Company 2004).
Katherine Paul is director of communications for the Organic Consumers Association.