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."
Most genetically modified ingredients found in the food supply come from corn or soy, and are formulated into everything from cereal to corn chips to ketchup. (Only a handful of commercially available produce items, including some squashes and papayas are gene-altered.)
An estimated 60 to 80 percent of all processed foods in a typical American grocery store contain a genetically modified ingredient, and most of the soybeans and corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, containing Monsanto technology.
Regulators consider such ingredients substantially equivalent to non-gene-altered ingredients, and, therefore, not requiring of a label. But advocates for labeling say that these ingredients, first approved by regulators in the mid-1990s, have yet to be adequately studied for health or environmental safety.
At least 60 countries, including the United States' biggest trading partners, require that foods containing genetically modified ingredients carry a label.
"More than half the world's consumers already have the right to know what's in their food, including 'beacons of liberty' like China," Faber said. "It's ludicrous that in the 'Land of the Free' consumers don't have the same rights."
In those countries, in practice, few products carry a label. Instead, food manufacturers have sought out non-genetically-modified ingredients to avoid carrying labels that might, whether warranted or not, trigger consumer alarm.
The biotechnology and food industries have long held that labeling would scare consumers away from genetically modified products, which have not been linked to any food safety or health issues. The American Medical Association, for one, has said there is no scientific justification for labeling genetically modified foods.
"Anti-technology activists and organic food companies are using labeling efforts as a step toward reducing GE (genetically engineered) technology," said Batra, the biotech trade group spokesperson. "Certainly we are concerned because this is a strategy that takes advantage of consumers by making them fearful of a technology that has enormous economic and environmental benefits."
The food manufacturing industry also cites the costs and difficulties of tracing ingredients that are so ubiquitous in the food chain. Even Whole Foods, when protesters in St. Louis last year demanded the company require mandatory labels, said its strategy was to label foods that are "GMO-free," rather than those that contain genetically modified ingredients, because of the prevalence of those ingredients in the food supply.
The company still acknowledges there are challenges. Whole Food's Lowery said Friday that it may be impossible to source non-genetically modified alternatives for certain products, in which case it may not carry the product.
"It will be difficult, but we're committed to doing it," she said. "This is going to encourage our suppliers and manufacturers to ask deeper questions about our ingredients."
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