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Organic Consumers Association

Top Right to Know Grocers: Just the Beginning!

  • By Patrick Kerrigan
    Organic Consumers Association, July 3, 2013

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

Sometimes a project you think will be relatively simple turns into something much bigger. And that can be a good thing.

Last week, we announced the winners of the OCA’s Top Right to Know Grocers Contest, a project of our Organic Retail and Consumer Alliance Campaign.  Because the number of nominations far exceeded our expectations, and because the nominees were so impressive, we expanded the number of winners to the Top 12 Overall – the Diligent Dozen – plus the top 10 by five regions: Northeast, Southeast, Central, Northwest and Southwest.

Phase one of the contest has ended, but the project is far from over. One of the purposes of our contest was to acknowledge and promote the industry-leading best practices of the winning grocers. But our overarching goal is to help the natural foods and organic industry take the essential next steps in working together as producers, distributors, grocers and consumers to drive GMO products out of our food system.  We invite input from grocers, growers, manufacturers and consumers on how best to accomplish this.

In the meantime, we’re hearing from a lot of you about stores that weren’t nominated this time around (not to worry, we’ll run the contest again next year), and we’re happy to see that many of you are visiting the stores’ pages on our contest site,  to congratulate them, or to ask them to open a store in your community. We think it’s great that these stores are getting some much-deserved attention for the hard work they do. And it’s good to know that consumers care about this list, and want to contribute to it in the future. Please keep your comments and suggestions coming!

Of course, some of you had, and still have questions. Why wasn’t your favorite store included? Why was store ABC chosen as a winner instead of the store you nominated?

Several of you asked for clarification on the contest criteria. We struggled a bit with this, because of the sheer variation in the sizes and business models of the nominees. How do you compare stores with sales of under $1 million, with large multi-store chains with sales over $100 million? Or brick-and-mortar stores with online-only retailers?

In the end, we went with the somewhat subjective process of evaluating which grocers are working most aggressively to keep GMO products off of their store shelves, to remove suspect products already in their inventory and to provide the most comprehensive labeling system for GMO and non-GMO products.

But to narrow down the lists, we had to look at other factors, too. For instance, we included only grocers that stock a wide variety of products that one would expect to find at a grocery store, including those products most likely to contain soy, corn and canola, and to a lesser extent cotton seed oil and sugar beet sugar – in other words, products that consumers want, but for which grocers have to work very hard to find non-GMO versions.

We learned a lot from the comments sent in by consumers, about why they thought their stores were winners. And we learned even more by connecting with all of these stores that are so committed to providing consumers with truthfully labeled, healthy, organic, locally sourced, non-GMO foods. For example, who knew that there were so many grocers out there whose produce sales are 95 percent – 100 percent organic? Or whose overall store sales are 50 percent or more organic? Or that so many grocers are taking the initiative to purchase or promote organic, local, fair trade, grass fed/pastured, and where legal, raw dairy products are sold?

Several grocers said that they tell their customers that the best way to protect themselves from GMO is to read labels and to buy organic.  Others talked about the importance of their gatekeeping role, as an expression of their stores’ values and mission, which include protecting customers from GMO-contaminated products and pressuring manufacturers to transition from GMO ingredients. “Stringent,” “fanatical,” “militant” and “uncompromising” are some of the adjectives store owners and managers used to describe their passion for saying NO! to GMOs entering their stores.  

One of our favorite conversations took place with Jimbo Someck, of Jimbo's Naturally!.  Jimbo’s is a leader in working with other grocers to remove GMOs from their stores.  Jimbo told us about a conversation he had with Dean Nelson of Dean's Natural Foods Market,  where he asked Dean when he was going to stop allowing GMO products into his store. Not long afterward, Dean’s Natural Foods was nominated for the contest by a consumer who wrote: “Dean will not sell ANY GMO foods in any of his stores!”  When we spoke with Dean, he told us how much Jimbo's non-GMO commitment and practices inspired him to decide this spring to no longer allow any suspect new products into his three New Jersey stores, and to remove products already on the shelves as quickly as store buyers can find alternatives.  

We also enjoyed hearing from Art Ames, General Manager of the Berkshire Co-op Market. Art said that the market used the purchasing power of its 16 co-ops, with cumulative annual sales of more than $150 million, to send a clear message to manufacturers: Either remove GMO ingredients from your products, or we’ll discontinue buying them.

These are just a couple examples of grocers supporting each other in the quest to go GMO-free. To help further these efforts we will be compiling an online grocers tool kit to document and share in more detail winning non-GMO policies and strategies. OCA will also be sharing best practices of grocers working with their livestock producers to source GMO-free feed.  Finally, we will be sponsoring another contest next year, and we look forward to receiving even more nominations for more industry-leading grocers!  

Patrick Kerrigan is retail education coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association.


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