John Mackey, founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets, which will require… (Jay Janner, Austin American-Statesman )
Although California voters didn't back the labeling of products made with genetically modified ingredients, the practice will soon be mandatory at Whole Foods Market Inc.
The chain, known for its upscale emporiums of healthful and organic foods, has decreed that all items sold in its American and Canadian stores note the presence of genetically modified organisms, or GMO, by 2018. The Austin, Texas, company says it's the first national grocer to set such a deadline.
Whole Foods Co-Chief Executive Walter Robb described customer demand for the labeling as "a steady drumbeat."
"This is an issue whose time has come," he said. "With cases like horse meat discovered in the U.K., plastic in milk in China, the recalls of almond and peanut butter in the U.S., customers have a fundamental right to know what's in their food."
Activists have long pushed for more transparency on supermarket shelves. Some see Whole Foods' pledge as evidence of retailers' growing power to force policy changes when voters and regulators can't.
"The government has not been willing to take on this issue," Robb said. "So it's going to have to happen differently."
In November, California voters struck down Proposition 37, a controversial ballot measure that would have required labeling of certain genetically modified products.
The grocery industry contends that genetically modified foods provide the same nutrition as organic fruit, vegetables and grains. Agriculture, food and beverage companies opposed to the initiative poured millions of dollars into advertising and lobbying to defeat the measure.
Monsanto Co. dumped $8.1 million into the attack campaign and PepsiCo Inc. contributed $2.5 million, according to a MapLight analysis of data from the California secretary of state. By voting day, opponents had raised $46 million against Proposition 37 — five times the $9.2 million cobbled together by supporters.
Whole Foods had endorsed the measure. The business has more than 300 locations, including seven British stores that already require such labeling.
The company says it carries 3,300 products from 250 brands that are certified as free of genetically modified organisms.
"We are growing, we need more supply and that's compelling for manufacturers who want to be part of that," Robb said of the chain's new labeling initiative. "If a supplier chooses not to do that, they won't be in Whole Foods."
Elsewhere in the food industry, major restaurant chains and suppliers are using their influence to shift views on issues such as animal welfare, sustainability and nutrition.
After years of pressure from animal rights advocates, brands such as Burger King and Smithfield Foods plan to exclusively use suppliers who offer eggs from cage-free hens, pork from humanely treated animals and similar products.
Wal-Mart and McDonald's have thrown their backing behind sustainable seafood labeling. Promises to reduce sodium and calorie content by Olive Garden and Red Lobster parent Darden garnered praise from First Lady Michelle Obama.
Whether such businesses are motivated by goodwill, the promise of profit from sympathetic consumers or the threat of impending legislation is unclear. But Whole Foods' move will be copied by competitors, said Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs for the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group.
"Clearly, they're going to be the first of many retailers who will require labeling as a condition of sale in their stores," he said.
But for now, tackling the crusade on genetically modified organisms will be tricky, said James Richardson, senior vice president of food research firm Hartman Strategy.
Other trends propelled by large retailers have the benefit of being easy to understand. The low-sugar push, the gluten-free movement and more "aren't hard to grasp and are tied to immediate, palpable concerns such as digestive health and weight," Richardson said.
Concerns about genetically modified food, however, are a fairly new phenomenon and are often steeped in complicated science. Until more companies choose to label products featuring modified DNA, the main consumer reaction to isolated efforts such as Whole Foods' order will be puzzlement, Richardson said.
"There's not a big interest among mainstream consumers in avoiding GMO because it requires them to have a fairly complex, intellectual sense of what it even means and why it's a problem," he said. "Sugar is much more terrifying than an abstract fear like that."