The movement that’s been pushing for the mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs (ingredients that have been genetically modified) got a huge boost last week, when Whole Foods announced it would require the labeling in its stores as of 2018.
“It’s an announcement about transparency and supporting the consumer’s right to know what’s in their food,” says Kate Lowery, a spokesperson for the grocery chain.
Until now, advocates (who warn of lax regulation around GMOs and possible health risks) have focused on legislation, like Proposition 37 in California. That initiative failed last fall but brought lots of attention to the issue. Now, they’re hoping Whole Foods’ enormous influence in the industry will have ripple effects at every level.
“This is the biggest news in the industry ever since organic standards were put into place more than a decade ago,” says Max Goldberg, the creator of Living Maxwell, who is very involved in efforts to label GMOs and scored the first interview with Whole Foods executives after they made the announcement at the Natural Products Expo West.
Why is labeling GMOs a big deal?
First, it’ll draw lots of attention to GMOs, since shoppers who may have never heard of them will suddenly be confronted with a label saying they’re about to ingest them. And vendors may start to move away from raw materials containing them, since a GMO label could hurt sales on the shelf. Finally, “It will put pressure on other supermarkets to label GMOs, because there will be a precedent, and shoppers are going to demand it,” Goldberg explains.
In fact, demand is already rising, which is one reason the company made the decision. “We’ve heard loud and clear from our customers that this was important to them,” Lowery says. And concerns about price increases related to the new labeling process are unwarranted, she says. “If you really look at the Non-GMO-verified products we have on the shelf now, they’re very competitively priced and popular.”
Whole Foods insists they’re not policing the presence of GMOs in foods, but rather taking a stand for the individual right to know what you’re eating. In the end, however, lots of companies will probably choose to eschew the altered crops in favor of slapping on a scary label, and that could have larger effects throughout the industry. This week alone, Ben & Jerry’s announced it was switching to all non-GMO ingredients, and top chefs like Mary Cleaver and Mario Batali said they wouldn’t cook with genetically-engineered salmon.
It seems the tide may be starting to turn for GMOs. —Lisa Elaine Held