Is Whole Foods’ GMO Decision De Facto Legislation?

Whole Foods recently announced that they will begin requiring their suppliers to label products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  Here’s the key piece from that announcement:

We are the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency. By 2018, we will require our supplier partners to label products containing GMO ingredients, and we will work in collaboration with them as they transition to sourcing non-GMO ingredients or to clearly labeling products with ingredients containing GMOs.

This may seem a natural fit for Whole Foods and that it will drive the retail grocery industry down the GMO labeling path.  I’m not so certain.  Rather than leading the way for industry-wide acceptance of labeling, this may in fact further bifurcate the retail grocery market.   Some vendors may decide to opt out and end their relationships with Whole Foods.  Given that possibility, this feels like a bit of a gamble as Whole Foods has been working to gain market share through value pricing.  If this doesn’t work as it appears they are hoping, they may be forcing themselves into a corner where broad appeal is more difficult.  (I’m not trying to have a discussion of stock prices, just thinking through the possible outcomes and unintended consequences of strategy.)

Looking at the other industry players (Full disclosure, I am an employee of SuperValu.), I see one of two possible paths which will likely be decided by the first moving large player.  Either a heavyweight like Wal-Mart will announce they’re going to go down the same path as Whole Foods (in effect enacting de facto legislation at that point), or a large supplier of Whole Foods will announce they’re pulling up stakes.  In that case, they may lead the aforementioned market bifurcation wherein suppliers line up on either side of the labeling fence.  The latter move would be much less certain than the former, but it certainly could drive the suggested outcome.

Whole Foods’ move appears to make industry-wide acceptance more likely, but I don’t see it as a foregone conclusion.  Regardless of the outcome, I’m hoping it helps us replace the cacophony of fear-mongering and obfuscation with a more reasoned, science-based debate on the potential benefits and risks of GMO foods.  If so, I think we’ll all owe a debt of thanks to Whole Foods.  We’ll see.

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2 thoughts on “Is Whole Foods’ GMO Decision De Facto Legislation?

  1. Interesting thoughts. There is going to be some tension on this issue for sure. Most of the active proponents of GE labeling are doing it to try to penalize companies that sell GE foods, to try to drive down demand for them and push them off the market. Some have attacked Whole Foods for even selling genetically engineered foods in their stores at all.
    Where the interesting sparks are going to fly is what happens with the companies that label their products as GE and decide to stay with Whole Foods. Will they then be on the brunt end of a campaign of vilification and boycotts from opponents of GE? Or will they instead be lauded as responsible purveyors of biotech foods? If vilification happens, then I could definitely see the market bifurcation you suggest.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Karl. I don’t know where this is headed, but think the ball is now irreversibly in motion. It will be interesting to watch this unfold.

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