Organic Consumers Association

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OCA's Response to Whole Foods' Alibi on Why They Are Selling GMO-Tainted Foods

Dear Friends,

In response to the Whole Foods Market person saying (see article below) that the OCA's demands on WFM regarding their selling of GMO-tainted foods, disguised as "natural," are impossible to meet, here's OCA's response:

OCA is not calling on WFM, Trader Joe's and natural food stores to drop all GMO-contaminated foods immediately, but rather to prominently label them as "Likely Produced with GMOs" so as to pressure their suppliers to get rid of GMO ingredients in all so-called "natural" products, just as they have already done with USDA Organic products. WFM knows full well that many of their shoppers believe that WFM's so-called "natural" foods (which represent 2/3 of their sales) are free of GMOs. Therefore it is basically deceptive and unethical not to label these suspect foods as likely containing or having been produced with GMOs.

WFM must certainly also understand that if they, and the rest of the industry put enough pressure on their suppliers (including labeling their non-organic suppliers' products with "Likely Produced with GMOs" stickers or shelf talkers) to stop sending them GMO-tainted foods, they will do so. Once WFM and the entire natural foods sector "Come Clean" on GMOs, OCA will happily take on the Bad Guys: Wal-Mart, Safeway, Krogers, McDonald's etc. But until we can honestly tell American consumers where they can go to avoid GMOs (or at least find a store where they are honestly labeled), we will have little or no leverage on the giant supermarket chains and junk food outlets.

For an Organic Future,
Ronnie Cummins
OCA Director

May 19, 2011

Eat Drink Remember the GMO food dump idea from the Organic Consumers Association? The basic idea is to call out natural food stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's for having one opinion about GMOs on their blogs and in their marketing while stocking "natural" products that are chock full of GMO corn, soy, canola, and sugar.

After publishing the article, I got into a very interesting email exchange with a reader and Whole Foods team member, who we will just call Rebecca. She was emphatic that she is not a spokesperson for Whole Foods Market, just a team member who feels strongly about the food dump concept. I hope you'll take some time to read her viewpoint and share your thoughts on the subject in our poll or in the comments!

While I'm not sure I 100% agree with what she had to say, I really appreciated her taking the time to share her viewpoint and feel like she brought up some interesting things that were worth sharing with you guys. Here are some excerpts from our email exchange:

Whole Foods Worker: Just wanted to know, why are people trying to do food dumps at Whole Foods, a company that at least tries to get GMO's off their shelves?  Why aren't you attacking the people who have made no effort at all and are silent on the issue, to the point of denying it exists?  I'm by no means a spokesperson for the company (I'm just a bakery team member), but I can say this much: yes, some of our products contain GMO's.  But the vast majority don't, and if we were to try to stock only non-GMO products, we'd lose any kind of bargain that we offer the customers on the products that were left.

Eat Drink I think the point about keeping prices down is interesting, as is the idea of reaching out to companies like Wal-Mart and Target about GMOs in their products. Here's a bit of my reply:

The idea behind the GMO dump is that Whole Foods isn't walking the talk. They speak out against GMOs but stock conventional products that contain GMO ingredients. However, I do agree that stores like the ones you mention have a much longer way to go and that we need to let these companies know how we feel as well. I'm not sure if a GMO dump would be as effective (would as many Wal-Mart shoppers be concerned about GMOs on the shelves?), but I'd definitely be open to doing a follow up with some ideas on how to get heard in stores like these!

And the WFM reply:

You're absolutely right that Wal-Mart shoppers aren't that worried about GMO's, but don't you think it's redundant to make the point to Whole Foods customers then?  Wouldn't you rather educate the Wal-Mart shoppers? Personally, I see more benefit in getting the message out to the general public than to repeating information to a niche that already has some knowledge of the issue.  Find new people to care about it, gain strength in numbers.  I understand that it's very difficult and very expensive for grassroots organizations to get a message out to the public, which is why I think that it would be better for Millions Against Monsanto to partner with Whole Foods than to protest against them. ­ WFM has money that it does share with NPO's, and Millions Against Monsanto has a cause that is completely within the framework of the Whole Foods mission.

Eat Drink I'm still not sure I agree that the food dump idea isn't worthwhile, but I see what she's saying here. She also explained that team members are educated about GMOs and questioned my idea that Whole Foods wasn't walking the talk:

WFM: I disagree that Whole Foods isn't walking the talk.  I've been pounded with information about GMO's since about an hour into my employment, and I think I already mentioned all the other ways that the corporation is vocal on the issue.  It seems like, by your standards, for Whole Foods to be "walking the talk," they'd have to stock only organic.  But that isn't a viable business model ­ the prices would be too high for the company to survive.  And remember, as much as Whole Foods has a message, it's also a business, not an NPO ­ the basic purpose of the store is to make money. It's profit first, message second, like all businesses (well, businesses that have a message, anyway ­ the majority don't, another credit to Whole Foods).  Stocking organic-only would close down several of their departments (including mine ­ probably the bakery first and foremost!), and would turn away customers.  So the very, very best that a corporation can do is to educate their customers and let the customers choose whether or not they care enough about GMO's to choose organic, vegan, soy-free, corn-free, sugar-free, or generally non-GMO products.  Whole Foods excels at doing that.

Eat Drink I totally understand running a business, since I run one myself. Sometimes you do have to make tough choices in order to still make a profit, but I think it's an overstatement to say that cutting GMOs would shut down whole departments, like the bakery. Since not all non-organic foods are genetically modified, the store wouldn't have to be all organic. The bakery, for example, wouldn't have to use organic wheat (yet), and they could make sure to stick to cane sugar to avoid sugar from GMO sugar beets. They'd need to choose oils like sunflower and olive, since conventional canola oil is often genetically modified, and they could either skip the corn and soy or choose organic there. Would those changes really shut down the bakery department? I might be missing some key ingredients, since I don't bake commercially.

While I don't 100% agree with Rebecca, I do think she makes some good points. At least Whole Foods is making an effort, and stores like it make organic products and food education accessible to a lot more people, which is more than you can say for a Kroger or a Publix .

I'd love to hear what other folks think about the food dump concept, as well! Is it a misguided protest? Are you a fan of the concept and planning to organize one?  Share your views in the comments and in our poll!
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