What you need to know about the future of GMO products at Whole Foods.
Credit: ANNECORDON/Getty Images

Whole Foods is delaying a policy that would have required its suppliers to label genetically modified organism (GMO)-containing products on its store shelves by September of this year. In a letter that was apparently sent to suppliers last week, according to the New Food Economy, the grocery store chain announced it would be postponing the September 1, 2018 deadline, first announced five years ago. Whole Foods cites upcoming U. S. Department of Agriculture standards as the reason behind the change and has not yet provided a new deadline. Here's what you need to know about changes to GMO labeling at Whole Foods:

What is the definition of a GMO?

The dictionary definition of a genetically modified organism is "an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering so that its DNA contains one or more genes not normally found there." Whole Foods draws a slightly harder line on that definition on its website, saying, "Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), also referred to as products of genetic engineering, are organisms whose genetic makeup (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally." However, the USDA has weighed in with its own definition (more on that below). Whether or not GMO foods pose any risk to consumers, many concerned shoppers are demanding transparency on the use of genetically modified ingredients in their food.

What is Whole Foods' current GMO labeling policy?

Currently, the labeling at Whole Foods has more to do with non-GMO products, as the company requires all suppliers to have their non-GMO claims verified by a third party (as stated above) because the USDA does not cover such labeling. That means some products in Whole Foods stores, especially packaged goods, may contain undisclosed GMOs. However, Whole Foods' website states that it has thousands of non-GMO products available, notably all of its organic produce and other products which, by definition, can't contain GMOs.

Whole Foods also provides multiple resources for shoppers who wish to avoid buying GMO products. The company's website has no fewer than four pages dedicated to explaining GMOs, the store's labeling policy, and what customers can do to ensure they're not buying unlabeled GMO products.

What is Whole Foods' new GMO policy?

In 2013, Whole Foods announced an initiative to require all food producers who wished to sell products in its stores to include labeling that acknowledges the presence of any GMOs. The deadline for that program to take full effect was supposed to be September 1, 2018.

Why is Whole Foods delaying the requirement?

The reason is that the USDA is also enacting standards for manufacturers to disclose and label GMO-containing products. In a statement provided to Food & Wine, Whole Foods clarified that its decision to postpone its own labeling requirement was due to the forthcoming government standard, saying:

"As the USDA finalizes the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard and the food industry assesses the impact, we have decided to pause on our September 1, 2018 deadline for our GMO Labeling Policy. We remain committed to providing our customers with the level of transparency they want and expect from us and will continue to require suppliers to obtain third-party verification for non-GMO claims."

Whole Foods, according to the letter sent to suppliers, wishes to avoid any undue additional costs or challenges to food manufacturers based on the USDA's guidelines.

What is the USDA's new GMO policy?

In 2016, Congress passed a bill that, while a compromise in many respects, did require the labeling of GMO-containing products. However, the criticism from pro-labeling advocacy groups was that the law only required producers to provide a scannable QR code, website, or telephone number where consumers could then find out if a product contains GMO ingredients. The bill left the implementation of labeling and definition of GMOs up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture under an update to the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (AMA).

To that end, the USDA's definition of GMOs differs from those stated above. Firstly, the department uses the term "bioengineered food." Secondly, the USDA may not include all forms of genetic modification in its definition, and only those which splice one organism's genes into another, limiting the scope of said bioengineering to not include gene editing. Additionally, according to the USDA's standards, some products which may contain GMO ingredients, but not as the primary ingredient, would only be subject to the standards or governing bodies appropriate to the primary ingredient (an example is given of a canned ham containing GMO corn syrup—the ham is subject to the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), not the AMA, and would only have to disclose GMO corn syrup if the FMIA required it.)

These standards are not completely defined as yet, but are scheduled to be in the in the coming months. Public comment is allowed on the updated AMA to help the USDA define what constitutes bioengineered foods but is set to close on July 3, 2018.