Whole Foods Market Inc's Co-chief Executive Walter Robb (left).… (Rebecca Cook/REUTERS )
This month, Whole Foods became the first retailer in the country to announce that it would require its more than 300 stores to label all food containing genetically modified ingredients.
The move, to be phased in over five years, marked the latest salvo in a decades-long, global fight over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) such as corn, cotton and soybeans in food. As the use of GMOs in a wide range of products has proliferated, so has the argument over whether they are safe for humans and the environment, whether they deserve more scrutiny from regulators and how they should be labeled.
The biotech industry has argued that GMO technologies are a safe way to reduce plant disease, increase crop yields and create a more efficient global food supply. The Food and Drug Administration has said there is no meaningful difference between foods that use organic ingredients and their genetically modified counterparts. Meanwhile, consumer groups and public health activists have continued to raise questions about the long-term effects of genetic manipulation and to push for mandatory labeling requirements throughout the country.
That clash culminated in California last fall with Proposition 37, a measure that would have required labeling of any foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. The measure was narrowly defeated, in part because of opposition funded by Monsanto, DuPont and other companies, which argued that the “flawed” initiative would increase grocery bills, lead to frivolous lawsuits and allow “special interest” exemptions.
Despite its defeat, Prop 37 has helped trigger GMO-labeling initiatives in other states and an upcoming protest at the FDA. It also played a role in the decision by Whole Foods, according to Walter Robb, the Texas-based chain’s co-chief executive.
Robb spoke with The Washington Post about the thinking behind the recent announcement and the ripple effect he hopes it will have. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:
I’m curious about the thinking behind this decision and the timing of it.
Our company has been in support of mandatory [GMO] labeling for years and years, starting in the ’80s. During the last couple years, we really heard a lot from our customers about their desire for labeling. In 2009, we helped to start the Non-GMO Project, which provides the protocols to do Non-GMO tests and Non-GMO labels. Then we had Prop 37. Now there are initiatives in about 20 other states.
As we began to look at our position, I think it became clear that this was a step that we needed to take. Fundamentally, [customers] were right about the fact that food should be labeled so that they had the right to choose. We have a long history of [supporting] that. The timeliness of these events, plus the encouragement of our customers — it all led to us saying this is the step we need to take as a company.
Were there people at Whole Foods who were wary of doing this?
Look, this is a big step. We didn’t say some of the product. We said all of the product. So, this is going to be a lot of work. It’s a doable goal. But we need to proceed in a very thoughtful manner.
Internally, we have different points of view on GMO technologies within our team. I think that’s healthy. Particularly over the last six months, we just kept coming back to, “What’s the step here we need to take?” How do you argue with the fact that a customer has a right to know what’s in their food? It’s so fundamental.
It was a consensus decision at the end. But there are different views as to the current practice of GMOs, the future potential of GMOs. This is an issue about the appropriateness of these technologies, the potential of these technologies. Our team is no different than the cross-section of the country. People just think about it in different ways for different reasons.
What about the reaction of your suppliers? Obviously, some welcomed it. For some, I’m sure five years seems like a short time frame.
People were surprised. They seemed pleased. Remember, a lot of our suppliers have already moved on this. A percentage of their product is in the Non-GMO Project. We’ve been encouraging them to do that for a few years. We realize this is complicated. The commitment to folks was that we’re going to do this together.
The thing is, it’s a free world. So in five years, if folks don’t want to participate, they don’t have to participate. They just won’t be at Whole Foods.