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Frankenfoods at Whole Foods

Even in a city full of people working for Monsanto, virtually everyone wants labels on food with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  And that could mean trouble for Whole Foods Market (WFM).  This is what is suggested in a survey released May 10, 2012 by the Gateway Green Alliance and Safe Food Action St. Louis.

Genetic modification (GM) consists of modifying the genetic structure of an organism by inserting a gene or altering an existing gene.  The result is a genetically modified organism (GMO).  GMOs are now used extensively in food.

WFM placed itself in the center of a dispute concerning GMOs in food when it significantly changed its position.  WFM had previously opposed the USDA’s (US Department of Agriculture) deregulation of GMO alfalfa, which would allow it to be planted anywhere.  But, in January 2011, WFM endorsed “conditional” deregulation of GMO alfalfa, stating on their blog that they support coexistence though they “continue to have reservations about GE [genetically engineered] crops.”

“Coexistence,” however, means accepting the planting of this GMO crop and the repercussions that come from it.  It seemed that WFM had abandoned efforts to keep GMOs out of food.

Since it was first introduced, the process of putting GMOs into food has been controversial.  Critics have documented an extensive list of harmful effects of GMOs, including decreased nutritional value of food, toxic substances in food, allergens, increased antibiotic resistance, and increased reliance on factory farms.

Safe food activists have two reactions to the dispute surrounding the unknown dangers of GMOs in food.  Many say that GMOs should be banned from food because we do not know the true health and environmental consequences.  A second response is that food containing GMOs should be clearly labeled so that consumers can make an informed choice of whether they want to purchase it.

As the world’s largest advocate for GMOs, St. Louis-based Monsanto, is the company with the greatest interest in the debate.  But an often unnoticed player is WFM.

In addition to sparking dissatisfaction with its reversal on GMOs in alfalfa, WFM implies that food it sells is labeled if it has GMOs.  But this is not the case.  WFM actually labels food which is free of GMOs and leaves GMO food on its shelves unlabeled.

For over 10 years, polls have indicated that 85–95% Americans do not agree with positions of Monsanto and WFM and want labels on GMO food.  These surveys appear to be by telephone or online rather than face-to-face.  They were also national, rather than focusing on a particular community or a target group, such as those shopping at WFM.

Differences and Similarities

Safe Food Action decided to survey attitudes toward GMO foods in St. Louis.  Since many people in St. Louis know someone who works at Monsanto, it is possible that attitudes would differ from the rest of the US.  This survey targeted specific groups.  These included persons in two WFM parking lots, shoppers at a market catering to low income customers (Soulard Market), those eating brunch in a bakery, students in an Environmental Studies class, and attendees at a variety of progressive events in the St. Louis area.

Interviews were completed by 315 persons who either filled out a card or answering questions if they were in a retail parking lot.  The survey had four brief questions:

1. Do you know what a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is?

2. Would you serve food containing GMOs to your family?

3. Do you think food containing GMOs should be labeled?

4. Do you assume that the foods you buy at Whole Foods Market are free of GMOs?

The targeted groups had big differences in their familiarity with the term “GMO.”  While only 7% of those at progressive events were unfamiliar with GMOs, a full 37.5% of Soulard Market shoppers were unaware of what the term means.  Since the later most likely had the fewest economic resources, it is an important reminder that those discussing food issues always need to remind their audience what GMOs are.

But even people unsure of what GMOs are wanted labels on them.  A full 95% of those surveyed wanted labels on GMO food.  The response was so uniform that this was the only survey question which did not have a statistically significant difference between the five groups interviewed.  Those asking that labels be put on GMO food are only asking what the average citizen expects.  Clearly, it is corporations such as Monsanto that are out of step with the vast majority.

WFM issues

The most intriguing pattern from the survey emerged for WFM customers.  They reported being the least likely of any group to serve GMO food to their families.  Yet, they were the most likely to expect food at WFM to be free of GMOs.  If WFM customers have the greatest dislike of serving GMOs but the greatest trust that WFM is selling them food without GMOs, then the company could have a serious problem if its customers discover that it is not only selling them food with GMOs but is not forewarning them of what it is doing.

WFM apparently instructs its employees to tell customers that it labels GM food when it does not.  WFM only labels foods free of GMOs, failing to warn customers of food which could contain GMOs.  In light of findings in this survey, WFM could discover that it has a very large credibility gap with those who purchase its products.  If its customers do, in fact, have more economic resources than most Americans, they may not be shopping due to nearness of WFM to their residence and could easily change to another grocery store.

Given the potential problems that could confront WFM, the study ends by suggesting several actions that it could take to maintain an image of concern with the quality of its food.

1. WFM could stop stating that it is labeling foods that contain Genetically Modified Organisms when it is not doing so.  It could make sure that its employees realize it merely labels foods that are free of GMOs and does not alert customers to potential dangers by labeling food that does contain GMOs.

2. WFM could phase out the selling of GMO foods by decreasing its stock by 20% per year.  Using 2012 as a baseline year for total amount of GMO food, WFM would have no more than 80% of that quantity of GMO food in 2013, 60% in 2014, 40% in 2015, 20% in 2016 and be completely free of GMOs by 2017.

3. WFM could voluntarily label all foods containing GMOs.  After admitting that it has misled customers with a false claim that it is labeling GMO food, it could initiate a genuine effort to do so by requiring that all of its suppliers label food with GMOs.

4. WFM could reverse its position on alfalfa.  It could state that the US Department of Agriculture should withdraw its approval of GMO alfalfa and should compensate all farmers whose crops are contaminated by pollen drift from GMO crops.

5. WFM could publicly state that coexisting with GMOs causes risk to human health, farming and wild species.

6. WFM could publicly state that it desires an end to all genetic engineering in agriculture, including forestry.

The food industry in the US is wracked with a broad variety of potential hazards and WFM is particularly vulnerable because its customers expect higher quality.  If there have been changes in attitudes over time, it has been that the consensus has grown from about 85% wanting labeling to about 95% in recent years.  Almost uniformly, Americans want the right to know what is in their food.

On April 30, 2012, we presented these results to a WFM St. Louis Store Manager and asked that the company respond within two weeks.  It is now in the hands of WFM to decide if it will admit past mistakes and move forward in providing quality food.

Don Fitz has taught several psychology courses in research methodology. 

Daniel Romano and Barbara Chicherio are safe food activists in St. Louis.

A full copy of the report is available at:
http://ggef.stlcamp.org/announcement/attitudes-toward-labeling-gmo-food-st-louis

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