Large agribusiness companies like Monsanto (MON) and DuPont (DD) have long experimented with their crops, looking for ways to scientifically bolster the food they grow. The products that result from the splicing and dicing of plant cells are referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs for short.
While GMOs are not known to cause any ill effects via human consumption, many are worried about a lack of scientific testing on the artificially enhanced crops.
"There hasn’t ever been a government-funded, peer-reviewed, third party study on the long-term efficacy of GMOs," says Whole Foods (WFM) Co-CEO Walter Robb at the 2013 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills. "The science is inconclusive at this point."
Because of the uncertainty surrounding genetically modified products, Whole Foods has announced that all GMO food sold in their stores must be labeled as such by 2018.
So far, the initiative has been a success with customers: "We’ve heard extraordinarily positive feedback from our consumers," Robb says.
More than 60 countries have laws either banning or regulating GMO products. The United States is woefully behind says Robb, noting that even Syria has regulations in place. Still, the idea is catching on in the U.S. Washington and New York are just two states out of 24 with GMO-labeling legislation on their dockets.
Robb, however, thinks more needs to be done on a national level. "We think ultimately it would be great if there was a federal standard," he says. Robb also thinks a national standard would be easier for suppliers so they won't have to change their packaging according to different state regulations.
Whole Foods hopes to set an industry standard with its labeling initiative. “I think this is precedent setting,” Robb affirms. “We have a large enough footprint in the food industry to get suppliers involved.”
At the end of the day this initiative is all about honesty and disclosure to Whole Foods. "This is really for us all about the customers' right to know and the transparency of the food supply...that’s where we’re taking a stand," says Robb.
Monsanto is a powerful company that has become famous for its lobbying prowess and intimidation tactics. Picking a fight with the company that made $13.5 billion in net sales for fiscal year 2012 is considered by some to be ill-advised. Has Whole Foods heard from Monsanto? "Not a word," says Robb.
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