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1574R-010764In response to what it called overwhelming customer demand, Whole Foods Markets has announced that by 2018, all its stores worldwide will include labels for any products that contain genetically modified content. The announcement is the latest contribution to long-running debates about the threat of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in our food supply, the responsibilities of farmers and retailers to signal such content to consumers, and the overall implications for consumers, suppliers, and public policy makers.

Thus far, scientific research about the impact of GMO on consumer health remains inconclusive. That is, no one has proven that GMO is harmful. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization all have deemed them safe. Accordingly, most corn and soybean crops grown today, at least in the United States, start from genetically modified seed sources.

Yet many consumers protest these so-called Frankenfoods as unnatural and potentially dangerous. As a result, the European Union requires labeling of all food products that contain genetically modified ingredients. The argument stands that if consumers do not want to eat genetically modified ingredients, they should have access to information that helps them avoid food items that contain them.

Critics of such policies argue that the backlash against GMO is reactionary and unnecessary, and likely to increase food prices globally. Without access to crops that have been genetically modified to resist disease, for example, corn and wheat producers likely will lose more of their production each year. Consumers seem unconvinced by this argument though. A recent pool of potential voters showed that 90 percent of them were in favor of adding GMO labels to food.

The Whole Foods labeling standard will identify which foods on its Costco Successionshelves contain genetically modified ingredients (in contrast, the European standard requires labels on items that have been certified to be free of any GMO). The retailer predicts that the labels will please not just consumers but also producers: Prior experience has shown that products specified as GMO-free enjoyed sales increases of up to 15 percent.

Source: Stefanie Strom, “Major Grocer to Label Foods with Gene-Modified Content,” The New York Times, March 8, 2013.