BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Despite a media storm and several petitions asking Wal-Mart Stores not to sell genetically modified sweet corn, industry experts say the issue still ranks low among the retailer’s core shoppers.
“I think that overall, there is a small but growing percentage of shoppers that is even aware of the biotech food issue,” said Jay Jacobowitz, president of natural product industry consulting group Retail Insights, Brattleboro, Vt. “The ones that are aware probably don’t want biotech ingredients in any of the foods they buy. Those that are not aware will probably purchase biotech wherever it is offered.”
Earlier this month the Chicago Tribune reported that Wal-Mart wouldn’t label or restrict sales of a new variety of GM sweet corn developed by agricultural biotech company Monsanto.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Dianna Gee argued that the Tribune story did not include one important point, saying, “The fact is that we are not directly sourcing genetically modified corn.”
However, she added that the retailer does not take genetic modification into consideration when making sourcing decisions.
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“We are following the guidance of the regulators, scientific and medical experts who have looked at this issue and who consider genetically modified products equal to the traditional counterparts,” Gee said.
The corn, scientifically engineered to resist pests, reduces the need for insecticides, according to Monsanto’s website.
“[Genetic modification] is not a specification in our sourcing requirements,” Gee said.
Since earlier this year, a number of consumer advocacy and environmental groups have campaigned to convince Wal-Mart to change its buying policies.
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Advocacy group SumofUs.org’s petition against Wal-Mart currently has over 101,000 online signatures, and the Food & Water Watch told the Tribune it submitted a petition to Wal-Mart with 463,000 signatures.
“Statistically, the decision to offer this particular biotech sweet corn should not matter to something approaching 99.5% of Wal-Mart customers,” said Jacobowitz. “Wal-Mart has 140 million transactions per week in its U.S. stores. Petitioners gathered something like 463,000 signatures asking Wal-Mart to ban GM sweet corn. If we just use that simple ratio; signatures to weekly transactions, we get one-third of one percent (0.33%).”
The ongoing debate centers around the fact that GM products don’t have to be labeled according to the Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines.
The labeling of genetically modified products is more than likely not to be a concern to Wal-Mart shoppers at this point in time, said Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights at the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.
“It’s probably going to take a few years for the Wal-Mart consumer for it [the labeling of genetically modified food] to register on their list of concerns and worries,” she said.
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A small, vocal group of health and wellness proselytizers are the main people concerned about GM labeling, Abbott said.
Wal-Mart plans to continue to follow the FDA’s lead.
“The FDA does not require specific labeling for genetically modified foods, but if the labeling rules change, we will require our suppliers to meet the labeling requirements,” said Gee
In November, California will vote on whether GM food should be labeled.
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