by Phil Howard
Published Thursday, November 29, 2001 in Tidepool
With little fanfare, on November 13, grocery chain Trader Joe's announced plans to remove genetically engineered ingredients from its private label products.
This is not insignificant news, as 85 percent of the products sold by Trader Joe's are emblazoned with the store name. It also brings the fast-growing company into a small group of grocery chains, including Wild Oats and Whole Foods Market, which have made similar pledges.
Although Wild Oats and Whole Foods Market worked willingly to ensure the purity of their products, Trader Joe's decision followed in the wake of pressure from its customers.
Prior to the announcement, the CEO was receiving more than 100 letters a day demanding the removal of genetically engineered (GE) food from store shelves. In addition, a coalition of grassroots groups organized anti-GE demonstrations in front of Trader Joe's stores in more than 20 cities. Similar campaigns in Europe led to removal of GE ingredients from store labels of most major grocery chains, as well as a moratorium on planting or importing new GE organisms since 1998.
Why has it taken so long for a movement against GE food to achieve a victory in the United States? Conventional wisdom has it that Americans do not care about the quality or purity of their food. This was the rationalization for a double standard over the past three years, as manufacturers removed genetically engineered ingredients for European markets, but took no such steps for the US market.
For example, Aldi stores in Europe removed GE ingredients from store brands in 1999, but Theodore Albrecht (from one of the wealthiest families in the world) did not extend this policy to the Aldi or Trader Joe's stores he owns in the US.
Recent surveys suggest that in point of fact, most Americans were unaware of the recent introduction of GE organisms into the food supply. A Gallup poll released April 11, 2000 indicated that only 14 percent of US citizens had heard a great deal about the issue. This lack of awareness is intentional.
Chemical and pharmaceutical corporations like Monsanto have deliberately introduced genes from viruses, bacteria and other organisms into our food supply, nearly in secret. Monsanto, through its influence on political appointees in the EPA, FDA, and USDA, has successfully prevented GE food from being labeled as such, despite opposition from scientists within these government agencies.
Genetic engineers are well aware that consumers will reject food polluted with foreign genes, if given a choice. The power of the industry is such that they were successful in taking away this choice from US citizens in 1993, when the first GE foods slipped into grocery stores unannounced. As a result, as much as 70 percent of the processed food in a typical grocery store contains GE organisms, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Trader Joe's recent decision suggests that the chemical and pharmaceutical industry victory may have been Pyrrhic. As activists expose government complicity with these corporations, faith in the safety of the US food supply is weakening and resistance to GE food is growing.
In response to the campaign against it, Trader Joe's recently conducted a poll of customers and found that more than 90 percent would avoid GE products if given a choice. This mirrors survey results from Europe, and suggests that Americans care just as deeply about food. The rapid growth in sales of organic foods, which do not contain GE organisms (unless contaminated by neighboring fields), underscores this concern. As awareness of GE foods reaches levels seen in Europe, the wholesale rejection of what the British have dubbed "Frankenfood" is likely to be duplicated in the US.
Phil Howard is a Ph.D. candidate in Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri. He presently lives in Portland, Oregon.