Is Whole Foods Sincere About its Support for Labeling Genetically Modified Foods?
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This article was published in collaboration with GlobalPossibilities.org.
After months of pressure from the organic community, including thousands of its customers, the leadership of Whole Foods Market on September 11 endorsed Proposition 37, the California Ballot Initiative to require mandatory labels on genetically engineered foods. But the endorsement came with “reservations” and inaccuracies. It also included the false claim that company policy precludes Whole Foods and its executives from providing much-needed financial support to Prop 37, a campaign that consumers – the very people who have made WFM and its executives wildly profitable – overwhelmingly support.
Is it possible that Whole Foods wants to ride the GMO labeling popularity wave while it quietly works behind the scenes to prevent Prop 37, or any other GMO labeling law, from passing? Could it be that a GMO labeling law – especially one like Prop 37 that prohibits the use of the word “natural” on any food containing GMOs – would cut too deeply into the company’s $9.8 billion in sales and almost $246 million in profits?
Right up until the company announced its lukewarm endorsement, Vice President of Global Communications and Quality Standards Margaret Wittenberg and other WFM top brass repeatedly stated that they would not endorse Prop 37. CEO John Mackey has reportedly claimed that “the jury is still out” on whether genetically engineered crops and foods are unhealthy for people or the environment. (Mackey also has stated that “no scientific consensus exists” to support global warming or climate change).
So why come out with a public endorsement of Prop 37? With national polls showing 90% support for GMO labeling, and voter support for Prop 37 running 67% for and 24% against, it was just common-sense marketing strategy to get behind the initiative. But was it really an endorsement?
When it first came out, WFM’s official endorsement contained misleading information that read straight from the opposition’s playbook. It also contained one glaring error. Initially, the company listed among its “reservations” about Prop 37 this incorrect statement: The use of 0.5% of the total weight as the upper limit for processed foods that contain one or more genetically engineered ingredients to be exempted from labeling is inconsistent with the long-established international labeling standard of 0.9%.
Not true. The OCA contacted the authors of the official press release and offered this correction, taken straight from the ballot initiative itself: The 0.5% exemption is for one ingredient and a food can have up to ten such ingredients, meaning a 5.0% exemption (until 2019).
It took them several days, but WFM public relations team did finally issue a correction. But the correction did little to strengthen the company’s endorsement, which continues to perpetuate the exact same myths that the NO on 37 campaign is now airing in its $35-million TV advertising blitz. The endorsement echoes biotech industry claims that Prop 37 is “too complicated.” That GMO food labeling is best left up to the pro-biotech federal government and the FDA (don’t hold your breath for this), rather than the states. That if passed, Prop 37 will result in greedy trial lawyers suing innocent grocery stores, farmers, and food processors for not labeling or mislabeling GMO foods.
None of this is true – as has been repeatedly outlined by the YES on Prop 37 campaign.
Also not true? That WFM can’t financially support the most important battle ever waged in the U.S. for consumers’ right to know about GMOs and truthful labeling on so-called “natural” foods. According to its website, company policy precludes donating to political campaigns or ballot initiatives. And yet, in 2009 WFM spent $180,000 lobbying against the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have granted farm workers (the same farm workers who pick the fruits and vegetables sold in WFM stores) and other food workers the right to form unions and enjoy collective bargaining rights with their employers.