AUSTIN, Texas -- Two major players in natural foods retailing have fully engaged programs to eliminate genetically modified organisms from their private-label products.
Whole Foods Markets here said that as of Oct. 1 all products manufactured for its 365 "everyday value" line will be made without GMOs. However, it will take an unspecified period of time for these items to be rotated onto store shelves, said Denis Ring, spokesman on the private-label team of Whole Foods, which has 121 stores.
Meanwhile, Whole Foods' most direct competitor, Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., with 109 stores, has already eliminated GMO-based ingredients from its private-label program, according to Sonja Tuitele, director of corporate communications.
The two retailers are believed to be the only significant U.S. chains to take this step. Two years ago, shareholders at a Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., annual meeting defeated a proposal to eliminate GMO ingredients from private-label products. Meanwhile, numerous European retailers, including Sainsbury, Tesco and Aldi, have expunged GMOs from their store brands.
"We've been moving in this direction for several years," Tuitele said. She would not be more specific about when GMOs were eliminated from Wild Oats store-brand products. A story that ran in SN on Jan. 10, 2000, reported that the two chains had just announced their intentions to purge GMOs from private-label goods.
However, both companies cautioned that it is impossible to completely eradicate GMOs because of factors beyond the retailers' control, such as incidental cross contamination. "I will never make the claim that our product is GMO-free. It can't be," Whole Foods' Ring said.
"You can't say with 100% certainty that every single private-label product on our shelves doesn't have any GMOs," said Tuitele. "But the things that we can control, and the things we can require our vendors to control, we do and we have for several years."
Perhaps because of that uncertainty, neither retailer is emphasizing the elimination of GMOs in its marketing, although both have statements about GMOs on their Web sites. In a recent visit to a Whole Foods store in Chicago, SN found no references to the GMO issue either on the sales floor or on an information board.
"We didn't do this for marketing reasons. We did this because it is a matter of integrity and we felt it was the right thing to do for our customers," Ring said.
"Whole Foods has made a decision to ensure that its private labels are not being made with ingredients that are taken from genetically engineered seed stock. We do not have as a goal the prohibition of all genetically engineered products. What we want is to offer our customers the choice. The bottom line is, we want to make sure that those customers that are concerned about the issue have the choice and the products so that they can choose non-GMO products," he said.
However, contrary to the mainstream U.S. packaged goods industry and grocery retailers, Whole Foods and Wild Oats have both taken strong positions on the labeling of GMOs for other foods.
"We really do believe in the consumer's right to know about GMOs and we heavily support the mandatory labeling of modified foods," said Kate Lowery, Whole Foods' corporate spokeswoman.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute, both in Washington, support the Food and Drug Administration's decision not to require the labeling of products that contain ingredients derived from biotechnology.
But the decision to eliminate GMOs from store brands by Whole Foods and Wild Oats -- two chains that are gaining influence as they add stores -- is bound to get the industry's attention.
"It can be difficult for a mainstream conventional food operator to eliminate all the GMOs in their stores," said Greg Badishkanian, vice president of equity research, Salomon Smith Barney, New York. "But this is going to provide Whole Foods with a competitive advantage if they can make their store brands GMO-free and others don't follow."
In the health foods industry, "Whole Foods is a big player and other suppliers are going to want to conform to be placed in the Whole Foods stores."
At Greenpeace in Washington, Kimberly Wilson, genetic engineering campaigner, noted that Whole Foods has been working on the GMO issue for a long time. "They really have been at the forefront. They know their customers and they know that their customers don't want to eat GMO and are choosing natural or organic food alternatives. Their news is significant in that they are an example of how it can be done," Wilson said.
"This is something that the smaller chains are having to deal with simply because their customer base requires it," she added. "But the more that group of people grows, then it is going to be the Safeways and the Krogers. The larger mainstream chains are going to have to deal with this. They know this is coming."
Greenpeace continues to target Trader Joe's, Monrovia, Calif., a limited assortment retailer with 131 nationwide stores that specializes in upscale and natural foods, to get it to take a stronger position on GMOs. Wilson noted that Trader Joe's parent company, the European retailer Aldi, has eliminated GMOs from private-label products. "Whole Foods has done it. Wild Oats has done it. It's time for Trader Joe's to respond to their customers in the same way. They have essentially the same kind of customer base that those other natural foods markets have," Wilson said.
Dan Bane, chief executive officer of Trader Joe's, declined to comment for this story, deferring to a statement on the company's Web site. "Currently, Trader Joe's is seeking information from our suppliers and vendors to determine whether or not the presence of GMOs in the products they provide us is knowable," said the statement. "Once we determine this information, we will seek to provide it for our customers so they may make informed buying decisions. This has been and will continue to be our preferred approach absent any clear guidelines from the FDA."