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.
Journalist Emily Anthes described AquaAdvantage in The New York Times as “an Atlantic salmon that carries two foreign bits of DNA: a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon that is under the control of a genetic ‘switch’ from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish that lives in the chilly deep. Normally, Atlantic salmon produce growth hormone only in the warm summer months, but these genetic adjustments let the fish churn it out year-round. As a result, the AquAdvantage salmon typically reach their adult size in a year and a half, rather than three years.”
AquaBounty says the faster-growing AquaAdvantage salmon saves time and resources, and that the products are safe. Critics claim such GM products are not sufficiently tested for safety, carry allergy risks and should be labeled.
But scientists, including the FDA’s experts, have concluded that AquaAdvantage is just as safe to eat as conventional salmon and that, raised in isolated tanks, it poses little risk to wild populations.
“We should all be rooting for the agency to do the right thing and approve the AquaAdvantage salmon,” Anthes said. “It’s a healthy and relatively cheap food source that, as global demand for fish increases, can take some pressure off our wild fish stocks. But most important, a rejection will have a chilling effect on biotechnological innovation in this country.”
Squelching the use of modern technology is neither a long-term successful business model nor a recipe for increasing the production of food for a growing population. There’s plenty of evidence, however, that forcing GMO-labeling or banning GM products will raise food prices. That’s bad news if you’re not one of the well-heeled, organic- and natural-food sophisticates that has been attracted to Whole Foods and other upscale food retailers.