At its annual meeting tomorrow, shareholders and advocacy groups will urge grocery giant Safeway to label its store brand products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Green Century Capital Management, which filed the proposal, cited unprecedented public demand for GMO labeling as a reason for Safeway to voluntarily provide this information. Consumer advocacy group US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) will be presenting a petition signed by over 130,000 consumers that calls on the company to label GMOs.
Polling consistently demonstrates a very high level of support for GMO labeling, including a July 2013 New York Times poll that found that 93 percent of Americans polled favored labeling. Due partly to public — and customer — opinion, companies such as Whole Foods, Chipotle and Ben & Jerry’s (which has committed to becoming GMO-free) have chosen to move faster than regulators and voluntarily provide consumers with information about the presence of GMOs in their food products. Safeway has not yet provided this information.
“Transparency is absolutely critical for earning and maintaining consumer trust, particularly when it comes to issues like food quality and safety,” noted Lucia von Reusner, Shareholder Advocate for Green Century Capital Management. “Shareholders have reason to be concerned if Safeway is unwilling to provide the transparent food labeling called for by over 90 percent of US consumers.”
“Consumers want to know whether the food they eat contains GMOs,” said Steve Blackledge, Deputy Director for US PIRG. “Safeway can get on the right side of their customer base by committing to a simple label. And the added bonus is they can keep up with some of their competitors.”
Genetically modified organisms are not required to undergo any safety testing by US regulatory agencies, according to the American Medical Association. Lack of scientific consensus around the long-term risks to public and environmental health from GMOs has prompted public demand for more transparency around the presence of GMOs in food. The shareholder proposal contends that until and unless long-term safety testing demonstrates that GMOs are not harmful to humans or the environment, the company should voluntarily label products that contain these ingredients.
Public pressure on companies to provide GMO labeling information has risen to unprecedented levels, as has regulatory pressure. Over the past year, bills or ballot initiatives have been introduced in over 20 states — and recently approved in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont — with Oregonians set to vote on a measure this November. And in January, a group of over 200 organizations including food companies, organic farming and environmental groups signed a letter urging President Obama to enact federal GMO labelling laws.
Safeway, which in March committed to not carrying genetically modified salmon (should it come onto the market), and is working to appeal to the growing segment of consumers interested in all-natural and organic products through its Health & Wellness private brand portfolio, has already faced pressure to label products that contain GMOs. In addition to Whole Foods’ commitment to label all GMOs by 2018, another competitor, Trader Joe’s, claims not to source any GMO ingredients. In addition to its O line of organic products, Safeway says many of the ingredients used in its Open Nature™ products are non-GMO, and that it has begun the process to obtain Non-GMO Project verification for the product line.