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Natural food retailers “act locally” against GMOs

The Non-GMO source
Volume 4, Issue 11

November 2004

Posted 10/25/04

With governments in the United States and Canada refusing to label
genetically modified foods, a growing number of natural food retailers
are taking matters into their own hands by labeling non-GM foods or
removing GM foods from their shelves.

At the Brattleboro Food Co-op, a 2500-member natural food co-op
based in Vermont, customers can identify non-GMO foods by a yellow
label on products that says either “Organic = Non-GMO” or “Non-GMO.”

The labeling project began in 1999 when store customers began asking about
GM ingredients. In response, the co-op’s Food Action Co-op Team wrote
letters to 200 food manufacturers asking them to verify the non-GMO
status of their products. Based on the manufacturers’ responses, the co-op
labeled the products. Certified organic products received the
“Organic = Non-GMO” label, while non-organic products verified to
be non-GMO received the “Non-GMO” label.

Katie, a member of the coop’s Shareholders Services Department, says “quite a
few” products in the store are labeled and the response from customers has been positive.
“It’s good for the co-op in that we’re educating consumers about GMOs,” says Katie.
“Even just having the labels gets customers who may not be aware of the issue to ask,
‘What is GMO?’”

Prodding manufacturers about GMOs also motivates them to source non-GMO
ingredients from suppliers, says Katie.

The co-op sent a follow-up letter to manufacturers in 2002. Katie hopes that a
national database of non-GMO companies will be established to help other
retailers label products without having to write letters to manufacturers.

"Err on the side of caution"

The North Coast Co-op, in Arcata, California, launched a similar labeling initiative in
the co-op’s two retail stores. Len Mayer, general manager, says labeling is challenging
due to the widespread use of corn and soy-based ingredients in food products. “There
are significant issues with corn and soy,” he says.

North Coast places small green labels on items that are certified 100% organic
according to the National Organic Program. “If the product has 95% or 70%
organic ingredients, we’re not ready to label,” says Mayer. The co-op also labels food
products that don’t contain corn or soy ingredients, which raise GMO concerns.

“Our standard is that if we aren’t confident that it is GMO-free, we won’t label it
with a green dot,” says Mayer. “We try to err on side of caution.”

Customers are responding positively. “There is broad support among customers,
especially among those who are aware of the GMO issue,” says Mayer.

For those unaware of the issue, North Coast has educational materials and GMO
action centers in both its Eureka and Arcata stores. “We’re trying to educate people,”
says Mayer. “There is still a lot of confusion and lack of education about the issue.”

“People Want to Know”

North Coast Co-op is also involved in a nationwide “People Want to Know”
labeling campaign launched last fall by the Natural Grocery Company, based in El
Cerrito, California.

Like the Brattleboro Food Co-op, the Natural Grocery Company wrote letters to
food manufacturers asking them to clarify the GMO status of products. The letter
also requests verification that products are non-GM and asks manufacturers to pledge
not to use GM foods that may be available within the next few years.

So far, about 10% of the manufacturers have responded, says Bob Gerner, Natural
Grocery Company general manager.

Natural Grocery has pulled two cereal products off the shelves because of manufacturers’
lack of concern about GMOs.

In launching the “People Want to Know” campaign, Natural Grocery distributed
its letter to other natural food stores on the West Coast encouraging them to also
write to manufacturers. About 57 stores have joined with most of those in California,
Oregon, and Washington, but stores in eastern states such as New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and North Carolina are also participating.

While labeling initiatives at the local level are helpful, natural food retailers say that
mandatory labeling of GM foods at the national level is the best solution. “It would be
easier to have labeling laws,” says Gerner. 

The Big Carrot declares “total lockdown” on GMOs

The Big Carrot, a 12,000- square-foot, workerowned natural food store
in Toronto, Canada, took a different approach than the US retailers to address GMO
concerns. Instead of labeling products as non-GMO, the store removed all products
suspected of containing GM ingredients.

Five staff members spent 700 hours over an 18-month period analyzing ingredients in
every grocery department product. “We went through each product to determine
which has GMO issues,” says store nutritionist Julie Daniluk. Products containing canola,
corn, and soy obviously presented the biggest problems.

Removed 20% of products from shelves

The staff sent letters to manufacturers asking for assurance that the products were non-
GMO. “We asked them to swear on their letterhead that their product is GE-free,” says
Daniluk.

If a company could not assure that their products were non-GMO, the products
were removed from the shelves. “We have a total lockdown on products that are
problematic with regard to GMOs,” says Daniluk.

Daniluk says there were “huge holes” on the shelves after GM-suspect products
were removed. In fact, the store removed about 20% of its products.

The only exceptions were products containing vitamins E, which is derived from soy,
and C, which is derived from corn, and soy lecithin. GM levels in these products are
nearly undetectable, and removing these products would nearly empty the store,
says Daniluk.

To remain on the shelves, products must contain less than 0.1% GM ingredients, a
non-GM standard recognized by the British Retail Consortium. The Big Carrot has even
looked into testing products for GMOs.

12% increase in sales

While the process of removing foods containing GM ingredients was arduous, the
results were positive. “The ban helps force the industry to use better ingredients,” says
Daniluk. As an example, one manufacturer switched from using corn syrup as a sweetener
to agave.

The response from store customers has been positive. “We’ve had a 12% increase in
sales despite selling 20% less products,” says Daniluk.

The GMO ban, which began in 2000, is an ongoing project. Staff members spend
a combined 100 hours each year keeping it up to date.

In addition to GMOs, the Big Carrot also bans products with artificial colors, hydrogenated oils, and artificial sweeteners. “We’re addressing all artificial foods,” says
Daniluk. “Our store is one safe haven where people can come and not have to read product labels (to check for artificial or GM ingredients). We believe we’re taking the natural food store to the next level.”