Commentary: Did Whole Foods Market go too far on GMO-labeling?

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When Whole Foods Market announced a five-year plan to label all GMO-products in its stores last week, it became the first national grocery chain to set a timeline for GMO-transparency.

In the process, Whole Foods 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, said, “These labels could mislead consumers into believing that these food products are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk.”

Other groups supported the idea. The Cornucopia Institute, an organization that focuses on educating the public on sustainable and organic agriculture practices, called it “fantastic.”

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 Walmart and 19 of the other largest food companies are considered GMO labeling.”

For most consumers in America, their take on Whole Foods GMO-labeling initiative likely rests with how it affects their food purchasing budget. Whole Foods, after all, has been referred to as “Whole Paycheck” so often that the company launched a nation-wide campaign to get rid of the label. Co-CEO John Mackey said two years ago that would be easier “if the media would stop repeating Whole Paycheck, Whole Paycheck.”

There’s plenty of evidence, however, that GMO-labeling will raise – not lower – food prices. And 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.

In fact, some journalists at The Atlantic noticed that food in America is getting cheaper, “unless you’re poor.” The Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson wrote that 30 years ago the average household spent about 17 percent of its income on food. “Today it spends about 11 percent. It’s a global trend: Food is getting cheaper relative to incomes everywhere with rising incomes.”

Thompson, however, wrote that average household spending “doesn’t mean much in a country where the top 20 percent earns 15 times the bottom 20 percent. So how do poor families food budgets compare to the rich – and how has that changed over the last 30 years?”

Relative food costs are low and falling fast for everybody – but they’re not falling for the poor.

“In 1984, the poorest Americans spent 16 percent of their incomes to eat,” Thompson reports. “The median-income family also spent 16 percent of its (slightly higher) income on food. And the rich spent the least. In the last three decades, food’s share of the family budget has fallen for all but the poorest families, where it’s stayed the same.”

Whole Foods initiative to embrace GMO-labeling will be met with warm embrace by the company’s core customers, but will likely do little to help it shed the “Whole Paycheck” moniker. Indeed, if 19 other leading grocery chains follow Whole Foods GMO-labeling initiative, food prices will rise for everyone.

At its core, Whole Foods' GMO-labeling initiative is a marketing strategy. By labeling products as “non-GMO” the company implies that they are better or safer, with little evidence to support such ideas. There’s no mention of the fact that GMO foods are sold in America with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration.

Yes, Whole Foods' GMO-labeling initiative is a savvy PR move toward the wealthy Americans who can afford to shop there. But it’s of little value to the rest of America.

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Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  March, 15, 2013 at 08:58 AM

I wonder if The Atlantic looked into whether food stamps were included in the poor families income to come up with that percentage? Sounds like something government reports would come up with. Like the sequesture was going to cost the military alone up to 800,000 jobs. And now Ben B. comes up with a total lose of up to 350,000. Math and statistics are so fluid.

Minnesota  |  March, 15, 2013 at 09:02 AM

Good for Whole Foods. It's information for the consumer to allow them to make their own choice about what they want to eat. I don't think it's a scare tactic or meant to imply something is better- it's meant to say "this product is non-GMO." Informative. Period. If companies are threatened by it, they should do more to educate consumers about the safety of GMO produced foods.

Baltimore  |  March, 15, 2013 at 09:10 AM

WholePaychek is the right guinea pig for this "non-GMO" labeling escapade. They, of all grocers, can easily pass along added costs. Heck, most WholePaychek patrons are careful to be seen shopping there precisely because everything is overpriced and everyone knows it - that's called conspicuous consumption and it is tres chic, no? Will this elitist marketing gimmick migrate into ordinary grocery stores? Maybe a little. Many grocers have "organic" and "natural" sections (most are not very big and the quirky pricey products shelved there get pretty dusty sometimes). However, thorough testing of all products labeled "non-GMO" should be required to absolutely assure there is, in fact, no corner-cutting on that claim and there needs to be strict enforcement with severe punishment for each and every instance of cheating. A "non-GMO" label is meaningless except as a marketing ploy and it could easily take its place alongside the other snobby ethnic foods labeled kosher, halal, organic. Just so long as cheating snake oil salesmen are not permitted to scam the public it should be an interesting experiment destined to fail and fade away.

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  March, 15, 2013 at 09:11 AM

So, are you saying GMO is not safe? And if so, what "real" scientific studies say there is a problem with genetic manipulation. And please don't send links to books on sale on ebay written by people with emotional fear, and not scientific facts showing how bad GMO is. Gotta remember there are no white non-flying turkeys out there naturally, they have been genetically modified. What proof do you have that what is done in the barnyard through manipulation is not as dangerous as lab manipulation?

Minnesota  |  March, 15, 2013 at 10:08 AM

Craig, if your question is to me, no, I'm not saying they are not safe. I'm implying they are. But this is another example where food companies (and all those who supply them) don't educate and tell their story nearly as well as the "niche" groups that seem to do a great job of it. Research overall is that GMO foods ARE safe so educate people better. Then they can feel good about what's buying on the shelf at most grocery stores; or they can make a choice not to. But the labeling allows people to make a choice- either way. They care or they don't; they want to spend more or they don't.

San Diego  |  March, 15, 2013 at 10:13 AM

I don' think this issue is about proving that food is safe or unsafe, it is more about the right to KNOW what you are eating. It can be an individual decision what to put in our own bodies. You may not care about GMOs so this is not harming you, it is simply providing you with the information to make the decision yourself.

Minnesota  |  March, 15, 2013 at 10:16 AM

Well said, Vince.

Minnesota  |  March, 15, 2013 at 10:16 AM

Well said, Vince.

Sci GuyBM    
Spokane  |  March, 15, 2013 at 10:34 AM

There is a wealth of data about the viral snippets contained in the GMOs for corn & soybeans that is currently labeled as "suspect" by the FDA. However: even if you wish to have fish genes, poison plant genes, bacteria genes in your foods; if you have not taken cell biology in college to know what that means; most of us do not want them because we understand the issue. Further: even if you argue that FDA/USDA bought approval makes argument they are safe (bought by the short-term contract review board members who work for very companies they review products for) the other issue is the toxic cancer causing, gender-bending chemicals the GMOs are engineered to be used with. You cannot buy JUST Bt corn: it comes stacked with multitude of herbicide genes as well. And it is those herbicides in those grains that pose as much a problem as the genes themselves. Finally: those herbicides are listed with the EPA toxic chemical list so there is no argument they are safe: they are listed as "known carcinogens" and "known endocrine disruptors" which again, if you have no science you might think "whatever" but when little baby Ben ends up young lady Jen maybe you'll know where that came from, go read about endocrine system.

Ron Freeman    
Illinois  |  March, 15, 2013 at 10:59 AM

One only has to look at Nature to understand and comprehend(hopefully) the negative affects of intervening in the natural selection process of producing food. Anytime, and I do mean anytime, you alter the genetic code of a specie, any specie, you also alter the environment that specie inhabits. The naturally ocurring paradigms found in Nature are without equal. They exist for a reason. They mainatain the proper balance required for ecosystem stability and multi specie survival. The consequences of our actions in the arena of genetic engineering have negatively impacted our health and our environment. There are those that believe that their intelligence is greater than Nature. But, understand that man will die, Nature will survive. Think about that. I have been in the ranching business for several decades and understand the interconnectedness of Nature and the consequences of man's invasive intervention all in the name of massive food productioin.

Vermont  |  March, 15, 2013 at 12:08 PM

I keep hearing about this divine "right to know". What does anyone really "know" if a label says GMO-free or some other such nonsense? There are no credible health or safety issues attributable to GE technology, so nothing to "know" there. I must conclude this vocal minority fretting over their "right to know" are really technophobes and Luddites desperate to protect their right to go around knowing nothing and believing anything. Maybe these new non-gmo labels should be made out of tin foil so "knowing" consumers can collect and fashion them into a hat that unfailingly deflects common sense and true knowledge.

Maine  |  March, 15, 2013 at 04:41 PM

Monsanto's method of genetically modifying plant DNA is not a precise one. Particle bombardment is messy and can cause unpredictable changes and mutations in the DNA, which might result in new types of proteins that can be toxic to numerous life forms. (Read this article for more info: We not only get nutrition from the food we eat, we get DNA. Monsanto insisted that the BT toxin in GMO corn would not survive the human digestive tract, but it has been confirmed to be in our guts and in the blood of 93% of newborn babies. ( We have no idea how GMO foods will effect the health of people, animals, bees, etc. We need to label it now. We need to get it out of our food supply ASAP!

Maine  |  March, 15, 2013 at 04:45 PM

Breeding within a species to promote desired traits is one thing. Breeding between mixed species is totally different. Man is arrogant to think that he can do so without making a real mess of our world.

Virginia  |  March, 16, 2013 at 06:03 AM

Laura that's is well said! We need to study more about the long terms effect of GMOs and GE. I for one believe that GMO products should be banned until we have understand the effects of them. This research needs to be done at a credible lab, that is not funded by the very company whose profits depend on the outcome. Where is the Surgeon General, asleep at the wheel?

W Snow    
Virginia  |  March, 16, 2013 at 02:31 PM

Good for Whole Foods. If Walmart follows then maybe the type of research needed to fully comprehend the risk and benefit of genetic engineering will be conducted. In the meantime how about clearly labeling agricultural feed as well.

anna xanthacou    
Ottawa, Ontario  |  March, 16, 2013 at 04:10 PM

Is anyone listening to consumers? We want to know what we are eating! What part of the sentence is so difficult to understand? Very glad to see at least one grocery store is listening. Planning of being the first customer when they open a store in my city. CAN'T WAIT!

ellie winninghoff    
Washington state  |  March, 16, 2013 at 11:37 PM

Cheap food is an illusion if it makes you sick.

Texas  |  March, 17, 2013 at 10:11 PM

How long is long term enough? We have been growing GMO corn for at least 12 years. It takes several years to get a variety into production also. In that 12 to 15 year window I have never read any credible research that shows any ill effects or dangers at all. You can be sure if there was even enough bad information out there some bottom feeding lawyers would have sued someone.

Texas  |  March, 17, 2013 at 10:11 PM

How long is long term enough? We have been growing GMO corn for at least 12 years. It takes several years to get a variety into production also. In that 12 to 15 year window I have never read any credible research that shows any ill effects or dangers at all. You can be sure if there was even enough bad information out there some bottom feeding lawyers would have sued someone.

montana  |  March, 19, 2013 at 10:17 AM

If all foo din the market is safe, no one will complain about having the truth of their ingredients right on the label of every package. If producers and food processors are afraid of consumer reactions (and product avoidance), once GMO foods are truthfully labeled, they should change ingredients! This is not about food prices, it is about hiding the fact of GMO ingredients in processed foods. Consumers have a right to know what they are buying. If GMO ingredients are "perfectly safe" to eat, then there is no reason to hide their existence in processed foods. Why is everyone fighting the labeling so hard? What are they hiding?????

California  |  March, 19, 2013 at 11:12 AM

People who are afraid of the dark use a night light to make imaginary boogie men vanish. Those people do not insist we all must burn night lights. If you whackos get your precious labels will that make your irrational fear of GMO go away? Of course not. Ordinary sane people do not need nightlights or GMO food labels. Technophobes need to grow up and stop believing in ghostly conspiracies. Or just keep the silly paranoia to themselves.

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