Co-ops Take Action on GMOs

Co-ops Take Action on GMOs
From #105, March-April 2003

Co-ops Take Action on GMOs

B Y   L I S A   F O R D

Think co-op member initiatives move too slowly? Then you haven’t met the members of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Due to the powerful efforts made by a handful of persons, the shelf tags in this co-op’s grocery department now indicate which foods are produced without GMOs: genetically modified organisms.

It all started two short years ago when the ten or so members of the co-op’s "Food Action Co-op Team" (FACT) began intensively educating shoppers about the potential horrors of genetically modified organisms in our foods. As this group began to learn more and more about the damaging effects genetically altered seeds had on organic farmers, as well as unsuspecting consumers, the stronger this group felt about a person’s right to know what goes into their food.

With the help of FACT members and co-op management, the Brattleboro Food Co-op drafted their first store-mandated, member-supported position on GMOs. In this position, the FACT members were given responsibility to request "letters of assurance" from our food vendors. These letters of assurance would be used to inform shoppers which products are produced with or without genetically modified organisms. Thus, the letter campaign was begun.

Over 400 letters were signed and sent to food manufactures and suppliers. And over 200 response letters were received. These letters contained a variety of statements made by some of the most influential companies in America, our food producers. Confirming their use (or non-use) of genetically altered foods was easy for some and difficult for others. For example, the letter received from Vitasoy USA, Inc. tells us that they "carefully select only those soybean varieties that have been bred and grown through traditional identity preserved methods (IP). The IP handling system ensures Vitasoy that its tofu and soymilk products are not genetically modified." Unfortunately, other companies can only verify their commitment to some day being totally free of using modified genes. For instance, Newman’s Own and Soy Boy tell us that they "have been in the process of eliminating the use of gmo ingredients in all their products, but have not been successful in sourcing appropriate ingredients."

As of today, there are two important factors determining which products earn the right to be labeled "non-GMO" on the grocery shelves of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Products receiving a label must either meet the federal guidelines for organic production, or there must be a vendor letter on file assuring us that their products are GMO-free.

Both Food Conspiracy Co-op in Arizona and Rainbow Grocery in California have taken similar measures in order to inform shoppers about genetically modified organisms in their foods. For over a year now, the Food Conspiracy has been labeling foods with green or yellow tags. Green signs indicate foods that are "certified organic, "organic," or "non-GMO." Yellow tags indicate that those foods may contain GMOs. [For more on Food Conspiracy, see the February 2003 Natural Foods Merchandiser —ed.]

Elizabeth Donoghue, bulk manager of Rainbow Grocery, recently discontinued their labeling of foods in their bulk bins due to poor support from their vendors. Elizabeth explained that she was not receiving adequate verification from suppliers in order to continue their labeling system. In replace of labeling, she now only sells bulk items that are identified as organic or GMO-free on their package.

Both the Brattleboro Co-op and the Rainbow Grocery have attempted to join forces with other local co-ops in hopes of creating a more unified market voice in support of GMO-free products. However, both co-ops have received a poor reception to this idea. Simon Harris from The Organic Consumers Association complained that the natural foods industry as a whole has done a poor job addressing this issue. Simon states, "GMOs have been on the market for six years. And in every customer survey 80 to 95 percent of responders clearly say they don’t want GMOs in their foods and that they want mandatory labeling."

The Brattleboro Food Coop is committed to GMO labeling and believes that this type of customer education will make a fundamental impact on consumer purchases. More importantly, this labeling will send an important message to commercial food suppliers. As shoppers begin voting with their dollars, food manufacturers will be more apt to listen.



Lisa Ford is a member of Brattleboro Food Co-op ([email protected])

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