Whole Foods Market announced Friday that, by 2018, all products in its North American stores will be required to carry a label indicating if they contain genetically modified ingredients.
The move by the national grocery chain potentially strikes a blow at biotechnology companies like Monsanto Co., the Creve Coeur-based seed giant.
"We're really drawing the line on labeling. It's about the consumer's right to know," said Kate Lowery, a spokesperson for the company, which reported sales of nearly $12 billion last year and operates about 340 stores across the U.S., including two in the St. Louis area. "I think this has a lot to do with listening to what our customers care about. They want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced."
The move by the Austin, Texas-based company, described as the first by a national grocery chain, bolsters efforts to require mandatory labeling, which companies like Monsanto have spent millions of dollars fighting.
Whole Foods -- as a national standard-bearer for organic and natural groceries -- has faced some public pressure to address the issue of labeling. Much of what the store carries is organic, meaning it cannot by law contain genetically modified ingredients, but many of its products are not.
At least 20 state efforts are under way to require some form of labeling, including bills in Missouri and Illinois. The Missouri bill, introduced in January by state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, would require labels on genetically modified seafood and meat, although currently no such products are on the market. (A genetically modified salmon is awaiting regulatory approval.) The Illinois bill, introduced in February, would require a label on any product containing more than 1 percent genetically modified ingredients.
"Today's announcement is part and parcel of a trend which is: Consumers wanting to know more about their food, not less," said Scott Faber, of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group that recently launched a pro-labeling effort. "The pressure's building."
Last year, California voters narrowly rejected a ballot initiative that would have required labels on most foods and drinks containing genetically modified ingredients.
The biotechnology and food manufacturing industries -- including most of the big names, from Kellogg to Coca-Cola -- raised $46 million to campaign against the measure. Monsanto, the world's biggest maker of genetically modified seeds, contributed about $8 million, more than any other company or organization. St. Louis-based soy ingredient developer Solae and grain company Bunge North America also contributed to the effort.
Monsanto referred questions Friday to the Food Marketing Institute, an industry trade group.
"If FDA wants to mandate this, we'd support it," said Heather Garlich, an institute spokesperson. "We don't want a patchwork of laws."
The biotechnology industry's leading trade group, BIO, of which Monsanto is a member, echoed that position.
"If Whole Foods chooses to voluntarily label these products as GM for the consumers who shop at their store, that's their choice -- as long as those labels do not imply that those products are somehow unsafe or less healthy," said Karen Batra, a spokesperson, in an email Friday. "That would be scientifically inaccurate, to say the least, but certainly false and misleading."
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