GMOS: Whole Foods' Employees, Customers Need Better Information, Critics Say
By Sarah Morgan, CEC Houston
With more and more consumers seeking out organic produce with nature's original genes still intact, Whole Foods has become a Mecca for environmentally conscious eaters. But questions have been raised as to whether Whole Foods, touted as America's first certified organic national grocer, is being completely honest with customers concerning the labeling of genetically modified foods.
Though genetically modified organisms or GMOs (also called genetically engineered or GE foods) have been common ingredients in most processed foods for almost a decade, a growing concern about the long-term effects of such products has caused many consumers to try to avoid them. When questioned, employees at two of Houston's Whole Foods stores denied that they sell GMO foods, but a phone call to the corporate office yielded a more informed response. Representatives at the corporate level said that they cannot guarantee that Whole Foods stores do not carry GMO products. In fact, odds are that they carry hundreds of products that contain GMOs.
The Whole Foods' web site acknowledges that GMOs are a troubling problem: "When it comes to our food supply we are very concerned about the disruptive effect genetic engineering may have on our environment and whether long-term human health issues have been thoroughly addressed."
Some activists have been battling with these seemingly contradictory policies since the mid-90s, calling for better labeling of GMO foods, which Whole Foods claims it wants. According to the Whole Foods web site, "We are actively engaged in efforts to establish mandatory labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients. Labeling will enable consumers to avoid products produced by means that may be contradictory to religious, spiritual, and/or ethical beliefs."
But shareholders and consumers are not satisfied.
"We've been very disappointed with Whole Foods' response," said Jenny Clark, a shareholder who has been active in the dialogue between shareholders and the Whole Foods' corporate offices concerning the marketing and labeling of GMO products.
Clark and others feel that Whole Foods' response to the issue has been misleading. Shoppers are under the impression that the products carried in the stores are non-GMO and employees in the stores are not sufficiently educated to the issue, she said.
"They are building their business on a myth," said Candace Boheme, a shareholder advisor also active concerning GMOs. Boheme said that the brochures about GMOs that the stores once carried are no longer being displayed prominently, if at all, and customers are not informed.
"They're distancing themselves from the issue," Boheme said.
The Whole Foods' corporate office will openly admit that the only way to avoid GMOs is to buy organic food. But food products that are labeled as being organic may still contain GMOs, as the US Department of Agriculture standard for the organic label requires that only 95 percent of ingredients be organic.
For those who want to avoid GMOs (and pesticides, growth hormones, and sewage-sludge) in their foods, "100% organic" is the label to look for. Many find such fare at local farmers' markets and co-ops. Whole Foods also carries 100% organic products, including their Whole Foods Premium label, and the 365 Everyday Value and Whole Kids product lines. Whole Foods has even reformulated some of their products, including sodas, ice cream, and frozen fruit bars, to remove corn syrup because they could not be sure the syrup was non-GMO, according to their web site.
But many continue to question Whole Foods' practices, saying that these steps are not enough.
"They can still do better," said Boheme, who added that, with all the good things that Whole Foods has done, it is surprising that the store is not doing more to educate the public.
Some consumers have become so frustrated with the lack of response from Whole Foods' corporate offices that they have decided to take their business elsewhere, including HEB's Central Market stores. But it seems that employees at Central Market may be just as misinformed. A phone call to the Central Market at 3815 Westheimer in Houston resulted in another wavering response. After explaining what exactly GMOs were, the response was that, no, they did not carry such products. But Clark and Boheme have also been involved in discussions with HEB regarding GMOs and insist that the grocer has been more willing to discuss the issue and that they are taking steps in the right direction.
"I just want an honest label," said Clark.
According the Whole Foods' web site, that's what they want, too. The site encourages consumers to contact the US Food and Drug Administration and congressional representatives to ask them to support mandatory labeling.
However, according to the federal agency, "For FDA to require labeling there must be something tangibly different about the food. In general, this means most genetically engineered foods will not need special labeling because they will be similar to traditionally bred varieties."
But Clark and others feel that this FDA policy is the crux of the matter.
"Consumers cannot rely on the FDA to protect their health," said Clark, who pointed to studies of the FDA's overall lack of involvement in testing procedures to assure the safety of GM products.
"Read your labels very carefully," Clark said, advising consumers to avoid the main GM foods, including corn, soy, canola, and cottonseed. But Boheme stressed that even this may prove difficult as labels may list such ingredients as textured vegetable protein, lecithin, or even vitamin E, all of which may contain or be processed from GM crops.