What is Whole Foods’ non-GMO risk?

March 29, 2013

If manufacturers don’t comply with GMO transparency sought by WF, how would its supply chain change?

Regarding the decision by Whole Foods Market to push for full GMO transparency – What if suppliers shrugged and said something like, “They’re just 340 stores. We won’t be in there.  So what.”

The industry admires Whole Foods for many reasons, among them its seafood sustainability program, where it adheres to Marine Stewardship Council standards and won’t sell red-rated wild-caught fish.  But with this new non-GMO initiative, the chain might be trying to flex market muscle it doesn’t have.  

The Lempert Report sees Whole Foods adding risk to its supply chain, since it clearly lacks the scale of Walmart to push the vendor base.    The chain currently sells 3,300 Non-GMO Project verified products, more than any North American retailer.  Its 365 Everyday Value store brands were the starting point in 2009.

That 3,300 figure is notable not only for its progress, but for the distance that remains for grocery suppliers to transition to non-GMO sources, or to clearly label products that contain GMOs.  Whole Foods says 2018 is its deadline for 100% transparency.

Because GMO ingredients are so pervasive in our food supply, it’s possible food manufacturers don’t know for sure where every GMO source is.  What would it cost to trace it all?  How long would it take? What’s their legal exposure if they or a supplier make a mistake? These are some questions food makers would likely ask before complying with the Whole Foods request—especially since science is inconclusive and FDA sees “no meaningful difference between foods that use organic ingredients and their genetically modified counterparts,” describes The Washington Post.

In that paper’s Q&A with Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb, he said, “How do you argue with the fact that a customer has a right to know what’s in their food?  It’s so fundamental.”

True. But what if the chain is overestimating its customers’ demand to know?  And what if enough major brands choose not to go along—and the Whole Foods supply chain is disrupted come 2018?