Act Locally Against GMOs

Natural food retailers take on the fight

With governments in the United States and Canada refusing to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), several natural food retailers are taking matters into their own hands by labeling non-GM foods or removing GM foods from the shelves.

At the Brattleboro Food Co-op, a 2,500-member natural food co-op based in Vermont, customers can identify non-GMO foods by a yellow label that says either “Non-GMO” or “Organic = Non-GMO.”

The labeling project began in 1999 when store customers began asking about genetically modified ingredients. In response, the co-op’s Food Action Co-op Team wrote letters to 200 food manufacturers asking them to verify the non-GMO status of their products. Based on the manufacturers’ responses, the co-op labeled certified organic products and nonorganic products that have been verified to be non-GMO.

Katie, a member of the co-op’s Shareholders Services Department, says “quite a few” products in the store are labeled, and the response from customers has been positive. “It’s good for the co-op in that we’re educating consumers about GMOs,” says Katie. “Even just having the labels gets customers who may not be aware of the issue to ask, ‘What is GMO?’”

Prodding manufacturers about GMOs also motivates them to source non-GMO ingredients, says Katie. She hopes that a national database of non-GMO companies will be established to help other retailers label products.

Err on the side of caution

The North Coast Co-op, in Arcata, Calif., launched a similar labeling project in the co-op’s two stores. Len Mayer, general manager, says labeling is challenging due to the widespread use of GM corn and soy-based ingredients. “There are significant issues with corn and soy,” he says.

North Coast places small green labels on items that are certified 100 percent organic. “If the product has 95 or 70 percent organic ingredients, we’re not ready to label,” says Mayer. The co-op also labels food products that don’t contain ingredients that raise GMO concerns. “If we aren’t confident that it is GMO-free, we won’t label it,” says Mayer. “We try to err on the side of caution.”

Customers respond positively. “There is broad support among customers, especially among those who are aware of the GMO issue,” says Mayer. For those who are unaware, North Coast has educational materials and GMO action centers in both its Eureka and Arcata stores. “There is still a lot of confusion and lack of education about the issue,” says Mayer.

People want to know

North Coast Co-op also participates in a nationwide “People Want to Know” labeling campaign launched in 2003 by the Natural Grocery Company, based in El Cerrito, Calif.

Like the Brattleboro Food Co-op, the Natural Grocery Company wrote letters to food manufacturers asking them to clarify the GM status of products. The letter requests verification that products are non-GM and asks manufacturers to pledge not to use GM foods that may be available within the next few years. Natural Grocery pulled two cereal products off the shelves because of manufacturers’ lack of concern about GMOs, says Bob Gerner, Natural Grocery Company general manager.

In launching the “People Want to Know” campaign, Natural Grocery distributed its letter to other natural food stores on the West Coast, encouraging them also to write manufacturers. So far, about 57 stores on the West and East Coast have joined the project.

While labeling initiatives at the local level are helpful, retailers say that mandatory labeling of GM foods at the national level is the best solution. “It would be easier to have labeling laws,” says Gerner.

“Total lockdown” on GMOs

The Big Carrot, a 12,000-square-foot worker-owned natural food store in Toronto, Ontario, took a different approach than U.S. retailers in addressing GMO concerns. Instead of labeling products as non-GMO, the store removed all products suspected of containing GM ingredients.

Five staff members spent 700 hours over an 18-month period analyzing ingredients in every grocery department product. “We went through each product to determine which has GMO issues,” says store nutritionist Julie Daniluk. Products containing canola, corn, and soy presented the biggest problems because these are the most common GM crops.

Big Carrot staff sent letters to manufacturers asking for assurance that the products were non-GMO. “We asked them to swear on their letterhead that their product is GE-free,” says Daniluk. If a company could not assure that its products were non-GMO, the products were removed from the shelves. “We have a total lockdown on products that are problematic with regard to GMOs.”

Daniluk says there were “huge holes” on the shelves after GM-suspect products were removed. In fact, the store removed about 20 percent of its products. The only exceptions were products containing vitamins E, which is derived from soy; vitamin C, which is derived from corn; and soy lecithin. GM levels in these products are nearly undetectable, and removing these products would empty much of the store, says Daniluk.

To remain on the shelves, products must contain less than 0.1 percent GM ingredients, a non-GM standard recognized by the British Retail Consortium. The Big Carrot has even looked into testing products for GMOs.

While the process of removing foods containing GM ingredients was arduous, the results were positive. “The ban helps force the industry to use better ingredients,” says Daniluk. As an example, one manufacturer switched sweeteners from corn syrup to agave.

The response from store customers has been positive. “We’ve had a 12 percent increase in sales despite selling 20 percent fewer products,” says Daniluk. The GMO ban, which began in 2000, is an ongoing project. Staff members spend a combined 100 hours each year keeping it up to date.

In addition to GMOs, the Big Carrot bans products with artificial colors, hydrogenated oils, and artificial sweeteners. “We’re addressing all artificial foods,” says Daniluk. “Our store is one safe haven where people can come and not have to read product labels (to check for artificial or GM ingredients). We believe we’re taking the natural food store to the next level.”

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