Whole Foods Market GMO Labeling Announcement Reverberating Through Industry

wholefoodsI am at Expo West in Anaheim, the annual pilgrimage of more than 60,000 members of the natural foods industry. In a surprise announcement yesterday, Whole Foods Market said that by 2018 they would require labeling of genetically engineered foods sold in their store for products that were not either organic or verified by the Non-GMO Project. The statement was met with huge cheers from the filled auditorium, and soon resounded around the world with coverage in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CBS News, etc.

This significant breakthrough puts on notice all food companies who still use GMOs. Those who sell to health conscious shoppers are sure to make plans to remove GMOs. But the momentum against GMOs is so widespread now, we are already hearing stories of mainstream conventional brands taking steps to replace GMO ingredients.

And not a moment too soon. According to USA Today, “Products that get a ‘Non-GMO’ verification label see sales spike between 15 percent and 30 percent, said A.C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods.” We saw this same dynamic in Europe just before the non-GMO avalanche kicked GMO ingredients out of the continent. Iceland Frozen Foods was the first chain to announce they had eliminated GMOs in late 1998. Their sales shot up, everyone took notice, media coverage then alerted even more consumers about GMO risks, and by April of 1999 the rest of the European food industry followed suit.

The US food industry is ramping up now as well. Non-GMO Labels were one of the fastest growing label claims in the US for the past four years, and in 2012, sales of products labeled Non-GMO in 2012 were the fastest-growing among all the health and wellness categories. The Non-GMO Project has verified more than 9000 products from 600 companies, with combined 2012 sales of about $3.5 billion. According to its executive director Megan Westgate, company inquiries shot up last fall due to the high profile Prop 37 battle in California, and continue to remain high.

At a presentation by the Non-GMO Project yesterday, one retailer asked if educating consumers about the dangers of GMOs might hurt sales of GMO-laden products in the same store. I then shared a comment I heard just last week about one natural food store manager that attributed recent record sales to the popularity of non-GMO products, particularly due to more and more physicians in their area prescribing non-GMO diets.

Consumer rejection of GMOs is being reflected in the demand for mandatory labeling, which is already enjoyed by 3 billion people in 62 other countries. Groups in 37 states have efforts underway to pass state labeling bills, and Washington state’s ballot initiative—to be voted on by citizens in November—has a huge chance of success. In particular, the state’s salmon, apple, and wheat industries are all at risk of contamination by future GMO introductions, and therefore industry leaders have become champions of labeling and segregation to protect their markets.

The feeling here at the Expo show is one of excitement and success. The natural foods industry is a major trend setter for the nation, and non-GMO has become deeply rooted here.  We are well on our way to seeing the tipping point of consumer rejection of GMOs.

Jeffrey M. Smith

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