Whole Foods quietly halts GMO labeling requirements
A year after Whole Foods was acquired by Internet retail giant Amazon, the food company is backing off its commitment to ensuring that food suppliers inform the consumer and the store itself if their food products contain GMOs.
There is some confusion about the decision by Whole Foods to walk back on its commitment but one thing is for sure – it is walking back.
In an email sent by Whole Foods President and Chief Operations Officer A.C. Gallo announced that the company is pausing its GMO Food labeling requirements. The requirements, which were scheduled to take effect on September 1, would have required that suppliers disclose on their packaging whether or not their products contained genetically modified ingredients. The requirements, which were announced five years ago, were three months away from being implemented.
In a copy of the announcement obtained by The New Food Economy, Gallo and two vice presidents write that the pause is a response to suppliers’ concerns about having to comply with two competing sets of rules: Whole Foods’ own GMO labeling requirements, and rules newly proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which are currently open for public comment.
“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,” the letter reads.
All this begs a question: is Whole Foods softening its commitment to GMO-labeling transparency?
The confusion is understandable. 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 — a method that has been criticized as a cumbersome extra step. Whole Foods has never planned to allow QR codes to count as GMO disclosures, Project Nosh reports. Second, USDA rules contain perplexing carveouts for meat products, which are regulated under a different system, as explained here and here.
Whole Foods now faces a choice: It can move forward with its original plan, or defer to the government’s less comprehensive new rules. The company has the ability to be clearer and more stringent than the federal regulations, requiring all foods that might contain genetically modified ingredients to say as much. Deferring to USDA rules would, instead, require only that some GMO-containing products are labeled as such — likely a sore point for non-GMO advocates, and not necessarily great for the Whole Foods brand. It would mean that a company that’s long claimed the moral high ground would be no more transparent, as far as GMO labeling goes, than any other grocery store.
The chain’s new position is in direct contrast to the one it announced five years ago in 2013 when co-CEO Walter Robb said in a statement that “We are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumers’ right to know.”
Unfortunately, Whole Foods has pulled up the stake on their promise. It remains to be seen how much the corporation will be hurt by this move since a sizeable portion of their customer base is opposed to consuming GMOs.