WASHINGTON -- The Clinton Administration's announcement extending federal oversight of genetically modified foods sets new standards for gene-altered ingredients, but stops short of mandating labels for products that contain them. In essence, the current situation leaves the door open for retailers to set their own policies, and some operators aren't waiting.
Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa., has become the latest supermarket chain to proactively address the issue by advocating the labeling of foods that have been genetically modified or that contain GM ingredients. Officials for the 33-store independent said that its position is a natural extension of a previous commitment to consumer health, nutrition and safety.
"We believe consumers have the basic right to know relevant information that will affect their personal food choices," said Charles Genuardi, company president. "We also recognize the significance of individual food preferences, and therefore, we want to guarantee choices for our customers to the best of our ability."
In announcing its new GM labeling policy, Genuardi's is working to bolster selection on the other side of the spectrum -- organic foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's revised organic standards, released for comment earlier this year, specifically ban the use of the organic label from genetically modified ingredients or foods. Genuardi's officials said the chain would seek to increase the certified organic selection in its stores over the coming weeks in order to provide customers with an alternative to GM products.
Also beginning this month, the retailer will begin contributing a series of articles to Inside the Market, a monthly consumer newsletter devoted to health topics and products, concerning the GM issue, and will also begin exposing its own employees to the debate through in-house newsletters and employee-training programs.
"As the link between consumers and their food sources, we are committed to taking an active role in educating our customers and family of employees on these important topics," said Genuardi.
Other retailers have clarified their position on the GM issue even before the Clinton Administration announced its new plan for GMO regulations, or are beginning to debate how to handle the issue, according to industry sources. The new federal proposal has been praised by the food industry, but booed by more stringent consumer advocacy groups. The proposed rules would provide more federal oversight of GM crops and set standards for labeling foods that claim to be biotech-free, but will not require mandatory labels on any product containing genetically altered ingredients. It is the latter policy that has disappointed some consumer groups.
"This plan is like some fat-free foods -- it's not very good and there isn't much substance," said Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist for Environmental Defense, a New York-based natural resource advocacy group.
The administration's plan would formalize the FDA's current review process for new biotech crops, set labeling standards that would restrict the claims of biotech-free foods, and also conduct a six-month review of environmental regulations that cover GMO plants and animals. Biotech companies will be required to alert the FDA at least four months before releasing new ingredients or products, and must provide all of the accompanying research data as well.
Most industry experts agree that, though there is no evidence that bioengineered foods pose a risk, publicly displaying the information on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Web site, an additional aspect of the new proposal, will help reassure consumers of their safety when buying GMO products.
"We believe that we can say, with absolute confidence, that everything [GMO affiliated] on the market is safe," said Dr. Jane Henney, director of the FDA. "But we feel the process needs to move to a mandatory mode."
Several fast-food chains have meanwhile moved to distance themselves and their menus from GM foods, including McDonald's, Oak Brook, Ill., and Burger King, Miami, Fla. The nation's two largest quick-service providers reportedly have told their French-fry suppliers to stop using genetically modified potatoes. According to the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, McDonald's hopes to be entirely GMO-free, with regards to potatoes, by fall of 2000.