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Guest commentary / Whole Foods and GMOs

Retailer should start labeling earlier

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By Ronnie Cummins and Katherine Paul
Whole Foods Market scored a public relations win with its announcement that it will become the first U.S. grocery chain to require that genetically engineered foods in its stores be labeled by 2018. Other food retailers will likely follow, and that can only be good for U.S. consumers who have been demanding, unsuccessfully so far, labels on foods containing genetically modified organisms.
But Whole Foods can, and should, do much more. In November, voters in Washington will decide on a citizens' ballot initiative, I-522. If passed, I-522 will require labeling of all foods containing GMOs by July 2015. Whole Foods should begin by moving up its deadline to match the I-522 deadline, instead of dragging out compliance for five years. Consumers have waited too long for this basic information -- information that 61 other countries already require by law.
Voluntary labeling of GMOs is a good first step toward providing consumers the information they need to make smart food choices. But why stop there? WFM makes billions of dollars every year selling products under the meaningless label of "natural." Despite the fact that WFM stores post signs that proudly proclaim "Nothing artificial. Ever," the company maximizes its profits by selling so-called "natural" products at premium organic prices -- knowing full well that consumers falsely equate the label "natural" with organic, or almost-organic. If Whole Foods can label GMOs, the company can surely also come clean about its "Nothing artificial. Ever" claim, and at the very least, stop deceiving customers by selling foods that contain GMOs and other unnatural ingredients under the intentionally deceptive "natural" label.
Whole Food's new policy is a smart marketing move. As A. C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods, told the New York Times, some of the company's manufacturers have reported a 15 percent increase in sales of products labeled non-GMO. CEO Walter Robb told reporters that the policy is a direct response to consumer demand. It's no coincidence that the announcement came less than four months after the defeat of California's high-profile GMO labeling battle, Proposition 37, a citizens' initiative that would have required mandatory labeling of GMOs, and would have prohibited the use of the word "natural" on products containing genetically engineered ingredients. Prop 37 was narrowly defeated after the opposition dumped more than $45 million into a month-long deceptive advertising blitz.
Robb told one interviewer that Prop 37 played a key role in the retailer's decision to label. Until Prop 37, he said, the conversation had never really "gelled." But where was Whole Foods during the Prop 37 campaign? The company could have taken a lead role in California, proving to consumers that the company truly believes in honest, transparent labeling. Yet the company remained on the sidelines, only to come through at the last minute with a tepid endorsement and no corporate donation to the campaign. (Robb personally donated $25,000). If the nation's leading retailer of organic foods had contributed generously to the Prop 37 campaign, and encouraged other retailers to join in, the narrow loss might well have been a narrow win.
Voluntary labeling is great, but let's face it: Whole Foods is labeling GMOs because it's good for business, not because it's good for consumers. If the company really believes in truth and transparency in labeling, it's time to step up with a strong endorsement, and a substantial contribution, to the I-522 campaign.
Voluntary labeling may be popular with consumers, and lucrative for retailers, for a while. But once the novelty wears off, there's no guarantee companies will continue their labeling policies. Without laws, consumers will remain in the dark when it comes to genetically engineered ingredients in their food. The simple fact is this: There are no long-term health studies proving the safety of GMOs. Consumers should have the basic right to know what's in their food, and labeling provides this. We applaud Whole Foods for its policy, but the policy falls short. It's time for GMO labeling policies with real teeth, and laws that guarantee those policies are enforced.

Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Katherine Paul is director of communications for the Organic Consumers Association.

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