As retailers see the sales of organic foods increase, and as complex national organic standards soon take effect, rising awareness of genetically modified foods seems to be the next issue.
Organically certified products are supposed to be, by definition, free of GMOs, according to the newly adopted USDA standards. Some retailers are having a hard time ensuring that their suppliers are really GMO-free. Others don't want to make it a rallying point.
On Earth Day, April 22, members of the environmental activist organization Greenpeace showed up at eight Trader Joe's stores in California, removing products from the shelves and holding press conferences outside, targeting the retailer for selling genetically engineered foods.
Pat St. John, vice president of marketing for Trader Joe's West Coast division in South Pasadena, Calif., said the chain sources organic products whenever possible, and objects to being targeted by Greenpeace, "when 60% to 70% of the food on anybody's shelf is likely to contain GMOs.
"We don't carry, nor do we claim to carry, GMO-free products. It is a goal of ours, but due to certain standards, we are unable to guarantee it at this point," St. John said. "Trader Joe's is not going to say we aim to do something that we are not sure we will ever be able to do."
"Trader Joe's has the classic double standard," said Craig Culp, spokesman for Greenpeace in Washington, D.C. "Their parent company in Europe, Aldi, tells its customers 'We're GE-free,' but in the U.S., they don't make the same assurances. That is part of why they are in our crosshairs."
Topco Associates, a private-label cooperative in Skokie, Ill., has a natural organic line called Full Circle, which puts on its packages of soy milk, for example, a reference saying "produced from organic non-GMO soybeans" instead of claiming GMO-free, because that allows for a possible trace level, explained Fred Arnal, who heads the Full Circle program.
"It's a matter of good quality assurance, and like kosher, you have to have a paper trail. Producers are testing corn in the field, manufacturers testing again when it's received -- that's what it's going to come to," Arnal said. "Everyone is going to have to test at every stage of the process, which could put some cost into the system. Until they require labeling, it won't have the impact."
Although Hy-Vee Food Stores, West Des Moines, Iowa, is seeing more organic sales, the chain's director of public affairs, Ruth Mitchell, told SN: "We are doing a lot more as a company to promote them and showcase them throughout the stores. We don't think it's due to people avoiding GMOs."
Joanne Gage, speaking for Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., said, "If it is going to be called 'organic,' then it cannot contain any genetically modified organisms.
"At this point, genetically modified food has not become a raging consumer issue for us. But I can say it's very difficult for us to be able to tell a customer whether or not a food contains GMO.
"We pride ourselves, as retailers, on being able to provide our customers with information about the packages of food they buy. This is a touchy issue, but at least this gives us the ability to tell them if you have any concern about GMO foods, you will be able to buy something certified organic."
As Mitchell said, "Our newer stores group those items into a Hy-Vee Health Market section, organic and natural and containing a lot of the special dietary needs products and low-fat products. We are finding that customers are all over the board with reasons why those products appeal to them. In some cases, it's concern over GMOs or pesticides; in other cases, it's dietary restrictions.
"We are getting a lot of questions now about [celiac disease and] gluten-free foods. People have environmental reasons for wanting products certified that they are grown in an environmentally healthy area; also, some desire low-fat products. A real cross section of consumers come to this section. And something new for us here in the heartland is more people following vegetarian or vegan diets. The Midwest is not noted for that, but [vegetarianism] is becoming more mainstream.
"It's very hard to categorize why the organic shopper does buy that way," Mitchell added.
The big issue on standards for the Grocery Manufacturers of America is to be sure that people don't perceive "organic" as superior, said Gene Grabowski, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based industry association, which represents 144 manufacturers of branded consumer packaged goods.
Regarding labeling, St. John said, "The state of the industry right now is very much in flux, and even well-meaning people are finding it very difficult. [For GMOs,] if the FDA, or USDA choose to mandate labeling, they will have to agree on what the labeling will be. To test down to the zero percent is impossible now," St. John said.
Gage said Price Chopper has written letters to all of its private-label suppliers, to find out what they can tell the retailer. "We have not taken a stand on whether it does or it doesn't contain GMOs. We just want to know.
"And we wouldn't play it up. By doing that, you'd be giving the feeling that there is something wrong with GMOs, but that it is not what we believe. We just all want the right to know. We are not talking about adding any additional costly labeling, but just some guidelines. There has got to be a way for the consumer to have access to this information," Gage said.
As long as GMO-food is recognized as safe, the government does not consider labeling it as such to be necessary.
On May 3, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration closed a comment period to find out if the public wants genetically modified food labeled as such.
Most consumers are not very aware of biotechnology in food, according to "Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket, 2000," a survey done for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C. Thirty-seven percent of grocery shoppers said they had heard nothing at all about it, the survey found, and only 9% said they had heard a lot about it. The survey, conducted by Research International USA, further found that consumers were more interested in reducing pesticides through biotechnology than they were in engineering to provide better taste. In either case, more than half of consumers said they would be likely to purchase a product that had been modified by biotechnology. Despite the controversy in Europe, use of genetically modified foods is widespread in the United States. Since 1990, the organic food category in the United States has been growing at 20% per year and is reaching close to a $10 billion annual market, according to a Salomon Smith Barney report done in March.
The GMA's estimate is lower still, with organic foods constituting 3% to 4% of the market -- not even $4 billion in annual sales -- but growing fast.
Grabowski, the GMA spokesman, said in most cases the new rule will affect new products coming onto the market, products that will be formulated to meet the new standard, which permits the "organic" label only when 95% of the ingredients are certified organic. Anything else will have to be reformulated or have its label changed by next October when the rule goes into effect, he said. The food industry welcomes standard organic labels, "because we want consumers to understand what organic is. And we wanted to make sure it is a standard that is reasonable, which, for the most part, it is," he said.
The National Organic Standard program was authorized in the 1990 Farm Bill, but it took until Feb. 21 of this year to finalize the rules. After a review by Congress, the standard became law on April 21. The regulation, which will be fully implemented Oct. 21, 2002, increased the minimum percentage of organic ingredients in products labeled "Made With Organic Ingredients" from 50% to 70%, among other changes. The time from now until Oct. 21, 2002, will be used to accredit certifying agents under national, uniform standards for the first time.
By that date, all agricultural products that are sold, labeled or represented as organic must be in compliance with the regulations. The USDA seal may not be used on any "100% Organic" or "organic" product until that time.
In addition, three states -- California, Iowa and Texas -- impose further regulation upon retailers that sell organically grown food.