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Whole Foods Withdraws Promise to Label GMOs

While Whole Foods Market, founded in 1980, has been a leading retailer of organic produce in the U.S. for decades, the company has faced its share of criticism; in later years being accused of operating more like an industrial organic company rather than a local distributor of high-quality organic food.

In 2007, it bought its chief rival Wild Oats — an acquisition initially challenged by the Federal Trade Commission, which said the merger violated federal antitrust laws and provided Whole Foods unilateral market power that could raise prices and lower quality. The issue was eventually settled by selling off the Wild Oats brand and more than 30 physical store locations.1,2

Amazon Now Owns Whole Foods

Last year, Amazon announced its intention to acquire Whole Foods Market and its 465 stores, a $13.7 billion deal that had food manufacturers quaking in their boots, while organic producers worried the deal might compromise and dilute organic food standards even further.3 The acquisition went through on August 28, 2017.4 Within two days of the merger, Whole Foods' store traffic rose by 25 percent. Within the first month, Amazon made $1.6 million off its online sales of Whole Foods private label products.

But while the success story of Whole Foods continues, questions about whether it's really socially commendable to shop at Whole Foods have festered well over a decade.5 The company has faced well-deserved criticism for its effects on employees by refusing unionization, the environment due to its limited supply of local produce, and its selling of questionable products such as items containing MSG and rBGH, making label scrutiny a necessity even here.

Like most large corporations, it has shareholders to contend with, and the company has been accused of cutting corners to make a profit on more than one occasion. This trend is unlikely to change with Amazon at the rudder. As a matter of fact, while Whole Foods has spent the last five years promoting its promise to implement a comprehensive labeling policy6 for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — a promise that has been a major selling point to entice customer support — that plan has now been laid aside.

Whole Foods Reneges Its Promise to Implement GMO Labeling

As reported by New Food Economy,7 Whole Foods' GMO labeling policy was scheduled to take effect September 1, 2018. However, in a May 18 email, Whole Foods president and CEO A.C. Gallo announced the company's labeling requirement is being "paused" in response to concerns from suppliers about having to comply with both Whole Foods' rules and those proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The public comment8 period ended July 3 and the final rule is expected to be delivered July 29.

"As the USDA finalizes the federal regulation in the coming months and the food industry assesses the impact, we do not want our Policy to pose further challenges for you and your business," Gallo writes. As reported by New Food Economy:

"As currently proposed, the USDA policy would make several substantive changes to the way GMOs have traditionally been defined by the food industry — starting with the terminology itself. The government's preferred nomenclature is "bioengineered" (BE), which only refers to a food that has had another organism's genes spliced into it by a process called transgenesis.

Other types of genetic modification, including some produced by gene-editing tools like CRISPR, would not need to be labeled. As currently written, Whole Foods' requirements would be more stringent than the proposed USDA rules in at least two significant ways.

First, USDA has suggested letting companies label BE ingredients by QR code, meaning that customers would need to be directed to a website via smartphone to find out what's in their food … Whole Foods has never planned to allow QR codes to count as GMO disclosures …

Second, USDA rules contain perplexing carveouts for meat products, which are regulated under a different system9,10 … Whole Foods now faces a choice: It can move forward with its original plan, or defer to the government's less comprehensive new rules."

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