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Organic Heroes: Your Top Right to Know Grocers!

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

It’s estimated that 75 percent or more of non-organic processed foods in the U.S. are contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Despite this fact, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has always known that there are leading natural food stores and co-ops that have put a priority on providing truthful labeling, including consumers' right to know whether the foods, supplements and health and bodycare products they purchase contain GMOs. We just weren’t sure how to identify these progressive and proactive grocers.

With your help, we set out to try. In March, we announced the 2013 North American Top 10 Right to Know Grocers contest, a project of our new Organic Retail and Consumer Alliance Campaign. We asked consumers to nominate stores, CSAs, and Co-ops that are doing a good job of informing customers about the products in their stores. We wanted to know about store policies for stocking GMO products and for labeling them. We wanted to know how GMO-conscious grocers work with manufacturers to limit the GMO products in their stores.

OCA activists took the challenge to heart. By the time our contest deadline rolled around, 363 consumers had nominated a total of 156 stores. We were impressed by the number of nominations, and the enthusiasm with which consumers talked about their favorite retailers. We also were inspired by the level of passion consumers have around the issue of GMOs in their food, and the dedication of store owners and managers to providing customers with good, organic, locally produced food and honest information about health and good nutrition.

There were so many nominees, we couldn’t pick just 10. After interviewing consumers who made the nominations, and owners and managers at the stores, we decided to expand the number of winners to 12 overall winners - we call them the "Diligent Dozen" - and 10 regional winners for each of five regions: Northeast, Southeast, Central, Northwest and Southwest. We hope you’ll look for the stores in your region. And if we’ve missed your favorite store, maybe you can nominate it next year?

Contest evolves into online resource for grocers

The Top 10 Right to Know Grocers contest was originally seen as a way to not only acknowledge the pioneering grocers taking the GMO-free mission to heart through their store policies and purchasing practices, but also to inspire other grocers to take the next step in protecting customers from the dangers of genetically engineered foods. It did all that. And more. The contest evolved into a resource for grocers who want to share success stories and strategies for implementing GMO-free and GMO labeling policies. We plan to expand this resource over the coming months to include toolkits for grocers who want to implement new policies, or refine existing ones, and improve their communications with food producers.

The process also improved OCA’s appreciation for the challenges grocers face in their pursuit of non-GMO products. And it shed light on their commitment to providing high-quality food choices despite those challenges. We learned that some contest winners have been diligently reading ingredient lists and quizzing manufacturers and distributor reps for decades, while others have only recently realized that their store's mission or their personal convictions required them to take extraordinary actions.

We also learned that individual grocers were motivated by different forces to set out on this journey. Some were motivated to remove or label GMOs by fellow store owners. One responded to a board member who decided to make it a personal mission to keep GMOs out of his community’s grocery. Another took up the fight after attending a film about the dangers of GMOs. Whatever the motivation, one thing is clear: Resistance is fertile, and we've reached the tipping point in forcing the GMO genie back into the bottle.

Here are some of the insights and challenges grocers shared with us:

•    Some grocers have been surprised by how prevalent GMO ingredients are in multi-ingredient food products. Cornstarch, soy lecithin, canola, sugar beets . . . it’s a long list.

•    Keeping GMO-contaminated products off store shelves is a complicated, challenging endeavor. Sourcing GMO-free supplements and health and bodycare products is particularly challenging.

•    Many grocers are working closely with food producers and manufacturers to help them transition from GMO to non-GMO ingredients. A fair number of manufacturers are open to making this transition, in order to continue selling their products in independent grocers.

•    Grocers who are committed to providing customers with GMO-free, local, food are supporting a complex, interdependent local food system.

•    Many grocers make a real effort to educate consumers, through signs in stores, newsletters and their websites. In some cases, by posting “contains GMOs” on shelves below GMO products, stores are putting the well being of their customers above sales and profits.

•    The majority of stores nominated are participating retailers of the Non GMO Project, a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building the non-GMO food supply, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices.  Non GMO Project provides signage, educational and promotional materials for products they have verified as being GMO free.

•    Some grocers who have taken a hardline no new GMO policy have done store audits and removed products containing GMOs from their stores.

•    Grocers striving to be GMO -free and provide 100% organic produce often choose to make exceptions for small local producers that either cannot afford certification or are marketing un-certifiable wild crafted products.

•    Some grocers make exceptions for gluten-free products in order to provide those products for customers with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance. Most have found it very difficult to find GMO-free gluten-free products.

•    Grocers doing the best job at keeping GMOs out of their stores were also the most committed to putting extraordinary efforts into increasing organic sales and prioritizing and promoting unique locally produced products, such as raw dairy products (when legal) and pastured/grass fed livestock products. The preference for locally sourced products extends to a wide variety of products, salsa, cheese and bakery items.

•    One grocer after another told us that the GMO tide is turning, and momentum is building for GMO labeling and GMO-free foods.

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

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