Whole Foods Market, a 335-store organic- and natural-food chain, made headlines last month announcing that by 2018 it will require all products in its stores to be labeled, indicating whether they contain genetically modified organisms (GMO). In doing so, Whole Foods became the first national grocery chain to set a timeline for GMO- transparency.
Whole Foods also furthered its reputation as a maverick in the grocery business, albeit a very successful one. “Whole Foods has changed the way many Americans shop for groceries, but is its decision to create a so-called ‘health-halo’ with GMO-labeling going too far?” asks Gil Rudawsky, head of the crisis communication and issues management practice at Ground Floor Media in Denver.
The announcement made waves across the grocery business. Louis Finkel, executive director of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, says, “These labels could mislead consumers into believing that these food products are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk.”
Rudawsky believes it was a “savvy PR move” by Whole Foods. “Whole Foods is likely to be the first grocer to start an already developing trend,” he wrote. “The New York Times reported that Wal-Mart and 19 of the other largest food companies are considering GMO-labeling.”
A week after the Whole Foods announcement, The Campaign for Genetically Engineered-Free Seafood — a coalition formed by the Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth and other groups — announced that food retailers representing 2,000 U.S. stores have vowed not to sell GM seafood if it is approved in the United States. The announcement was made as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears close to approving genetically engineered salmon from AquaBounty Technologies, Maynard, Mass. In December, the FDA announced a draft environmental assessment, indicating the genetically engineered salmon from AquaBounty — called AquaAdvantage — would not have a significant impact on the U.S. environment. The salmon would be farmed in Panama.
AquaBounty formally applied for approval of the GM salmon in 1995. The public comment period was supposed to end in February, but the FDA extended the deadline to late April. If approved, the salmon would become the first genetically engineered animal to enter America’s human food supply.
For corn and soybean farmers, the anti-GMO sentiment from Whole Foods and other likeminded retailers and consumer groups has become expected. But the announcement that many retailers — including Whole Foods, Aldi and Trader Joe’s — will not sell GM salmon is a preemptive strike that may carry a significant impact on any potential livestock-based foods that might utilize GMO-technology.