Commentary: Did Whole Foods Market go too far on GMO-labeling?
When Whole Foods Market announced a five-year plan to label all GMO-products in its stores last week, it became the first national grocery chain to set a timeline for GMO-transparency.
In the process, Whole Foods furthered its reputation as a maverick in the grocery business, albeit a very successful one.
“Whole Foods has changed the way many Americans shop for groceries, but is its decision to create a so-called ‘health-halo’ with GMO-labeling going too far?” asks Gil Rudawsky, head of the crisis communication and issues management practice at Ground Floor Media in Denver.
The announcement made waves across the grocery business. Louis Finkel, executive director of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, said, “These labels could mislead consumers into believing that these food products are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk.”
Other groups supported the idea. The Cornucopia Institute, an organization that focuses on educating the public on sustainable and organic agriculture practices, called it “fantastic.”
Rudawsky believes it was a “savvy PR move” by Whole Foods. “Whole Foods is likely to be the first grocer to start an already developing trend,” he wrote. “The New York Times reported that Walmart and 19 of the other largest food companies are considered GMO labeling.”
For most consumers in America, their take on Whole Foods GMO-labeling initiative likely rests with how it affects their food purchasing budget. Whole Foods, after all, has been referred to as “Whole Paycheck” so often that the company launched a nation-wide campaign to get rid of the label. Co-CEO John Mackey said two years ago that would be easier “if the media would stop repeating Whole Paycheck, Whole Paycheck.”
There’s plenty of evidence, however, that GMO-labeling will raise – not lower – food prices. And that’s bad news if you’re not one of the well-heeled, organic and natural food sophisticates that has been attracted to Whole Foods.
In fact, some journalists at The Atlantic noticed that food in America is getting cheaper, “unless you’re poor.” The Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson wrote that 30 years ago the average household spent about 17 percent of its income on food. “Today it spends about 11 percent. It’s a global trend: Food is getting cheaper relative to incomes everywhere with rising incomes.”
Thompson, however, wrote that average household spending “doesn’t mean much in a country where the top 20 percent earns 15 times the bottom 20 percent. So how do poor families food budgets compare to the rich – and how has that changed over the last 30 years?”
Relative food costs are low and falling fast for everybody – but they’re not falling for the poor.
“In 1984, the poorest Americans spent 16 percent of their incomes to eat,” Thompson reports. “The median-income family also spent 16 percent of its (slightly higher) income on food. And the rich spent the least. In the last three decades, food’s share of the family budget has fallen for all but the poorest families, where it’s stayed the same.”
Whole Foods initiative to embrace GMO-labeling will be met with warm embrace by the company’s core customers, but will likely do little to help it shed the “Whole Paycheck” moniker. Indeed, if 19 other leading grocery chains follow Whole Foods GMO-labeling initiative, food prices will rise for everyone.
At its core, Whole Foods' GMO-labeling initiative is a marketing strategy. By labeling products as “non-GMO” the company implies that they are better or safer, with little evidence to support such ideas. There’s no mention of the fact that GMO foods are sold in America with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration.
Yes, Whole Foods' GMO-labeling initiative is a savvy PR move toward the wealthy Americans who can afford to shop there. But it’s of little value to the rest of America.