BOULDER, Colo. -- Wild Oats Markets here and Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc. are leading a pool of natural-food retailers urging the government to mandate labeling of genetically engineered foods.
The retailers are supporting the "Consumer Right to Know" campaign, founded by Fairfield, Iowa-based Mother's for Natural Law, in a collective effort to gather one million consumer signatures in hopes of getting the labeling laws passed.
M4NL claims that more than 60% of the foods found in supermarkets over the past two years, including many perishables, contain organisms that are artificially manipulated and reinserted into the food item or ingredient. Even though the government deems the practice safe, M4NL argues that the unnatural recombination of such materials can breed the formation of toxins, allergens, superweeds and superbacteria.
According to Jim Lee, president and chief executive officer of the 61-unit Wild Oats chain, consumers should be allowed to know which products have been genetically engineered and which have not.
"Our customers expect us to take a leadership position on information," he said. "We want to make sure that our customers retain the right to know as much about the product structure as possible."
Wild Oats has been involved in a number of movements aimed at protecting consumers over the past few years, said Lee. He noted that Wild Oats took an "active and vocal leadership" role in support of the Dietary and Supplement and Health Education Act and supported the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Proposed Rules for Organic Standards." Whole Foods Market has been conveying a similar message to highlight the retailer's responsibility toward protecting customers' rights.
"Customers expect us to be at the forefront of these types of issues," said Kim Barnett, a consumer-relations spokeswoman at the 87-unit chain. "It just lets the customer know that we are following up with it and we are actually wanting to have the Food and Drug Administration mandate some kind of labeling law."
Last year, Whole Foods collected part of the 200,000 signatures in support of the organic standards rules, which touched on the issues of genetic engineering, as well as issues of municipal sludge and irradiated foods, said Barnett.
She also said the supermarket chain was involved in a letter-writing campaign in which letters were sent to 400 manufacturers asking if the products they produced contained genetically engineered ingredients, and if they would indicate the ingredients on their labels. Only one-third of the manufacturers responded, said Barnett.
In this latest initiative, M4NL sent both retailers kits containing posters, bumper stickers and brochures, said Laura Ticciati, executive director of M4NL. She said the kits, which cost $10, are designed to "make it easy" for the retailers to collect signatures.
The eight-page, four-color brochures, created by M4NL, detail the program and explain what genetically engineered foods are, the health risks involved and how to look out for them, said Ticciati. The back page of the brochure also includes a list of the manufacturers who sponsored the program, she said. To further promote the signature drive, decals were created so retailers could place them in their store windows and customers would know that store was a participant in the program, said Ticciati.
In an attempt to convey a "passive-aggressive-type of sign up," some Whole Foods units set up tables near the customer-service area or near the front of the store depending on store design, according to Barnett. "You take it upon yourself to be educated," she said. "We're offering this for you, but we're not going to throw it in your face."