BELLINGHAM — Before Stephen Trinkaus slapped “GMO Alert!” labels on dozens of products in his Bellingham grocery store, he asked customers what they wanted.
The choices were: do nothing, label products that contain genetically modified ingredients (GMO means genetically modified organisms) or get rid of the items altogether.
Customers overwhelmingly chose labels, which began appearing on Terra Organica’s shelves in March.
Trinkaus’ customers made their decision ahead of Washington voters, who are likely to decide this fall whether they want food companies to label products with genetically modified ingredients. That could change if the Legislature takes action on Initiative 522 in a special session, but it is not expected to.
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Labeling supporters say GMOs raise health and environmental concerns because many are designed to withstand weed-killing herbicides. They also say not enough research has been made public about the plants.
Labeling opponents say such crops can boost the food supply and that genetic modification has taken place for centuries in the form of grafting trees and selecting crops for certain traits.
The GMO labeling issue is heating up nationally as well.
A nationwide labeling bill was introduced in Congress last week by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
Executives from big biotechnology developers Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical told Reuters they plan to fight back with a campaign to stem growing consumer concerns about GMOs.
The biotech industry and other labeling opponents spent $44 million to defeat the labeling proposition in California, more than four times what supporters spent.
In Washington, where the campaign is in its early stages, labeling supporters say they have raised more than $1 million so far, compared with about $1,000 for labeling opponents.
Meanwhile, some retailers are choosing voluntary GMO bans and labels.
In March, Whole Foods Market announced its suppliers have until 2018 to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients. Trader Joe’s says it does not allow GMO ingredients in its private-label products, and some smaller grocers
have begun eliminating or labeling GMO products as well.
“I thought it would be simpler than it is,” said Trinkaus, who is revamping Terra Organica’s labels to display more complex information.
He wants customers to know, for example, if a manufacturer is working to replace genetically modified ingredients with non-GMO alternatives — and many are after Whole Foods’ announcement.
Terra Organica, which occupies half of an old Safeway, boosts Bellingham’s status as an epicenter of GMO awareness.
The city also is home to the Non-GMO Project, thought to be the most prominent U.S. certifier of non-GMO foods.
Even the local Great Harvest Bread Company franchise has phased out as many GMO ingredients as possible from its products.
“We got rid of canola oil six or more years ago, and corn two to four years ago,” said Hans Wendt, who owns the franchise with his wife, Rene.
Almost all their eggs, butter and honey are organic, not because the bakery wanted to eliminate pesticides, but to remove products that may have involved animals who eat GMO feed.
Anything likely to have GMOs — chocolate chips with soy lecithin, for example — appears on its package labels with asterisks saying “possible GMO ingredient.”
“We’re doing this because we’re worried,” Wendt said. “This whole thing is untested, so you don’t really know” whether they’re safe or not.
Testing is a big issue for people who support GMO labeling.
The Washington initiative says that unless GMO foods contain known allergens, the Food and Drug Administration does not require manufacturers to consult with it. Consultations “are entirely voluntary, and the developers themselves may decide what information they may wish to provide,” the measure says.
Theresa Eisenman, an FDA spokeswoman, said, “While the consultation process is voluntary, compliance with the law is not; it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure that its food products are safe and comply with applicable requirements. The goal of FDA’s evaluation during the consultation process is to ensure that food-safety issues or other regulatory issues are resolved prior to commercial distribution.”
Great Harvest owner Wendt, who also shops at Terra Organica, is typical of the grocery store’s customers in being concerned about GMO ingredients.
Regular customer Erin Kanoa also worries about Trinkaus labeling products himself.
“What if companies sue him? I’m keeping my fingers crossed for him,” said Kanoa, who was not surprised to see which products have GMO ingredients.
If food is not organic, she said, “I assume it’s GMO.”
That is a pretty good rule of thumb. By the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition, organic products cannot contain genetically modified ingredients.
Although most food is not genetically modified — for example, most whole fruits and vegetables are not — GMO ingredients can be found in a lot of processed products.
In the United States, 93 percent of the soybeans planted are genetically modified, according to the USDA. Similarly, 94 percent of cotton and 88 percent of field corn are genetically modified. More than 90 percent of canola is, according to researchers, as well as
at least 85 percent of the sugar-beet crop.
That means most common ingredients made from those crops — noncane sugars, cottonseed oil, aspartame, lactic acid, modified food starch — are genetically modified.
Although the Gates Foundation and others are working on GMO crops with heightened nutritional benefits, those now in production are modified primarily to resist certain pesticides and herbicides. That means the crop will not die when sprayed with the herbicides and pesticides, but everything else — namely, weeds — will.
At Terra Organica, Trinkaus tagged anything that was not organic and included an ingredient from GMO-dominated crop. The labels include a line showing “likely GMO ingredient(s).”
In some cases, the companies behind the products are clear about their stance. Cookie and cracker-maker Back to Nature, for example, says, “We believe that foods developed through biotechnology are safe, and there’s broad scientific consensus on this.”
Other companies label their products as non-GMO but include ingredients that are likely to be genetically modified.
Trinkaus is contacting them directly.
Some manufacturers test for GMO content after processing, which in many cases, such as with canola oil, can destroy the GMO markers. That makes it impossible to know if the ingredient is genetically modified, according to the Non-GMO Project.
Others send statements on company letterhead saying they have tested it. “They can’t give me a paper trail that’s convincing,” Trinkaus said.
That’s where the Non-GMO Project comes in.
Like organic certifiers before the USDA developed a standardized organic label, the project has compiled its own set of criteria to determine if a product is non-GMO.
Megan Westgate, executive director of the Bellingham-based nonprofit, started it in 2006 with interest from retailers. The organization, the primary third-party certifier of non-GMO ingredients on U.S. shelves, requires testing of ingredients using private laboratories before they are processed.
The cost of testing averages a few hundred dollars per product, depending on the number of ingredients and facilities in which they’re being produced.
Typically, the label, which says “Non-GMO Project Verified,” appears on the front of a package along with the project’s website address.
The group has seven employees, three hired in the past six months because of growing demand. Its revenue was $217,144 for the year ended June 2011, according to the nonprofit data collector GuideStar.
The Non-GMO Project now certifies about 10,000 products from more than 600 companies, including Whole Foods for its private label.
“We have thousands more Non-GMO Project verified products than anyone in the U.S. or Canada. At least 3,500 items,” said Errol Schweizer, who is spearheading the Whole Foods effort.
Customers want to know, he said, adding that sales of non-GMO items are outpacing the chain’s total sales growth.
“The science can be interpreted either way, that GMOs are really bad or GMOs are really good,” he said. “Our customers … are looking for the non-GMO products.”
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @AllisonSeattle.