Grocery giant Whole Foods Market will require all foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold in its U.S. and Canadian stores to be labeled as such by 2018. This puts the company in the position of being the first grocery chain in the United States to set a deadline for GMO labeling. “We are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumer’s right to know,” said Walter Robb, Whole Foods co-CEO, during his March 14 presentation at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California. GMOs are organisms whose genetic material (DNA or RNA) have been altered in ways that would not occur naturally through mating or cell division. The process involves the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material. During his presentation at the expo, Robb pointed out that the prevalence of GMOs in the United States — paired with what he referred to as “nonexistent mandatory labeling” — makes it “very difficult” for retailers to buy foods that don’t contain GMOs. At the same time, it’s also difficult for consumers to choose non-GMO products. Paying heed to the power of the marketplace, Robb said the company is responding to its customers “who have consistently asked us for GMO labeling.” “We are doing so by focusing on where we have control: in our own stores,” he said. Critics of GMOs say that genetically engineered crops can be harmful to human health and to the environment. On the other side of the fence, supporters say that food produced through biotechnology poses no more risk than food produced in conventional or organic ways. In 1992, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established a policy declaring that there is no substantial or material difference between genetically engineered foods and foods that haven’t been genetically engineered. Labeling in the spotlight The issue of labeling has grabbed the spotlight in this ongoing controversy. Last year, voters in California nixed a hotly contested initiative that would have mandated labeling of GMO foods or food items containing GMOs. In Washington state, voters will likely be weighing in on this in November. In addition, there is also a campaign in favor of a federal law that would require labeling on all genetically modified foods. Labeling supporters, including Nature’s Path Organic, say that GMO ingredients are found in 80 percent of packaged foods in the United States. Yet because no mandatory labeling is required, consumers don’t have the option of deciding if they want or don’t want to buy genetically engineered foods. That’s where Whole Foods’ recent decision in favor of labeling comes into the picture. For the past several years, Whole Foods has been collaborating with many of its “supplier partners” to source products without GMO ingredients, according to information on the company’s website. In 2009, it began putting its “365 Everyday Value” line through the Non-GMO Product Verification Program. Under this independent third-party verification program, food production must follow rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance. The program’s seal allows consumers to make informed food buying choices. According to the Non-GMO Project, 93 percent of soy, 88 percent of field corn, 94 percent of cotton and more than 90 percent of canola seed and sugar beets planted in the United States (2012 data) are genetically engineered. Whole Foods currently sells 3,300 Non-GMO Project verified products from 250 brands, which, according to the company, is more than any other retailer in North America. It plans to expand this effort by working with suppliers in all categories as they transition to ingredients from non-GMO sources or clearly label products containing GMOs by the 2018 deadline. In interviews with reporters, A.C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods, pointed to the growing demand for products that don’t contain GMOS. He said that products that qualify for a “Non-GMO” verification label enjoy a sales spike between 15 percent and 30 percent. And in the case of non-perishable groceries, the two fastest growing areas are organic and non-GMO products. Nevertheless, he conceded that products without GMOs are more expensive based on tighter supplies of non-GMO ingredients. But even so, he said that he hopes the company’s announcement will “open up the market” for more non-GMO crops. He also pointed out that in the case of the company’s seven stores in the United Kingdom, where labeling is required for all foods containing GMO ingredients, there aren’t many products containing GMOs. He ascribes that to the UK’s labeling requirements. Then, too, there’s the company’s decision to include required labeling for meats and dairy products if the animals were fed GMO grains. Considering the huge volume of GMO grains fed to livestock, Gallo described this part of the strategy as a “huge undertaking.” What about labeling and food safety? Karen Batra, spokesperson for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which represents Monsanto, DuPont and other companies that make and sell genetically modified seeds, told Food Safety News that BIO definitely supports the voluntary labeling of products as well as market-driven approaches to labeling. “But they (the labels) can’t carry messages about food safety and health if they would be misleading,” she said, pointing to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s policy on this. “We’d object to any inferences that non-GMO foods are safer or healthier. GMO foods, non-GMO foods and organic foods are compositionally the same.” Batra also pointed to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s labeling policy, which says that mandatory food labeling is only allowed to include information about the nutritional content or health-related characteristics, such as allergenicity or toxicity. When asked if her group fears that Whole Foods’ decision to require labeling of foods containing GMOs would lead to similar decisions by other grocery chains, Batra said that that remains to be seen. “Some retailers will be looking at how Whole Foods handles this and its impact on the company and its customers,” she said. As for Whole Foods’ labeling requirement on meat from animals that have been fed GMO grains, Batra said that would very much be a “ground shift” for the livestock industry. And she pointed to problems in the European Union, where there’s a moratorium on biotech crops and currently a shortage of livestock feed. “Feed prices are going through the roof,” she said. “They might not even be able to feed their animals if the moratorium continues,” she said. Labeling supporters, meanwhile, point out that the United States is out of step with the European Union and many other countries. About 50 countries, including the EU and member states, Japan and other key United States’ trading partners have laws mandating disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients on food labels. Returning to the issue of food safety, Batra said that “every credible scientific organization in the world has weighed in on this.” “They’ve all concluded that genetically engineered foods are the same as conventionally grown and organic foods,” she said. Biotech acreage According to the most recent report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a record 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries are growing biotech crops on 420 million acres. Also according to the report, “Such adoption represents a stunning 100-fold increase in hectares (a hectare is about 2.471 acres) planted since 1996, making biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history.” The United States remains the top country in biotech acreage, with more than 172 million acres of biotech crops planted in 2012. The primary biotech crops grown in the United States are corn, cotton and soybeans, but also grown there are biotech sugar beets, alfalfa, canola, papaya and squash. According to the Non-GMO Project, 93 percent of soy, 88 percent of field corn (corn raised for seed or livestock), 94 percent of cotton and more than 90 percent of canola seed and sugar beets planted in the United States (2012 data) are genetically engineered. What about organics? Touted as an organic grocery chain, Whole Foods nevertheless also sells many non-organic products. Under USDA’s National Organic Standards, genetically engineered seed and ingredients in the growth and production of organic foods is not allowed for foods bearing the agency’s organic seal. On its website, Whole Foods encourages people who want to avoid GMOs to buy organic or its 365 Everyday Value food products. “Accordingly we are stepping up our support of certified organic agriculture where GMOs are not allowed, and we are working together with our supplier partners to grow our non-GMO supply chain to ensure we can continue to provide these choices in the future,” said Whole Foods co-CEO Robb. Organic Consumers Association hails Whole Foods’ decision to require the labeling of GMO foods a “victory for consumers and the GE (genetically engineered) labeling movement,” even though the organization takes issue with the company’s approach to “natural foods,” many of which it says contain GMOs. In an essay, association officials Ronnie Cummins and Katherine Paul describe Whole Foods’ decision on labeling as a “a major setback for Monsanto, who for 20 years has worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to uphold the myth that GE (genetically engineered) foods and crops are substantially equivalent to non-GE foods, that they are perfectly safe, and shouldn’t require labels.” Even so, the authors of the essay believe the company can do better than waiting until 2018 to kick in its labeling requirement. They base that conjecture on Washington state’s initiative, I-522, which, if it passes, will require mandatory labeling by 2015. “Consumers shouldn’t have to wait five more years,” says the essay. Whole Foods Whole Foods (www.wholefoodsmarket.com/company-info) started in 1980 with one small store in Austin, Texas. Today, it touts itself as “the world’s leader in natural and organic foods,” with more than 340 stores in North America and the United Kingdom (it has 7 stores in the U.K.) On the financial front, Whole Foods reported that during the 16-week first quarter of 2013, its sales increased 14 percent to $3.9 billion. In fiscal year 2012, the company had sales of approximately $12 billion. Go here for more information about the company’s financials.