Organic. Grassfed. American Humane Certified. You’ve seen these labels in your favorite specialty cheese store, signifying the cheese you’re about to purchase is certifiably processed as described.

But there’s another label – a black rectangle with two spears of grass and an orange butterfly – that’s causing quite the level of consternation these days in the cheese world. It’s the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal, and it has the potential to change the way a significant number of cheesemakers make cheese in the United States. And if one of the world’s leading natural food markets has its way, you’re going to be seeing it a lot more.

With more than 400 stores in the United States and Canada, and annual sales of $14.2 billion, Whole Foods is THE major player in the North American natural food market. Last year, the company announced that by 2018, all products (including cheese) in its U.S. and Canadian stores must be labeled if they contain genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs.

Whole Foods is the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency. Its GMO labeling will go further than any current state law or pending national initiative for labeling.

“This is about providing transparency to consumers,” says Cathy Strange, global cheese buyer and national procurement & distribution officer for Whole Foods Inc. “Our quality standards for food already prohibit the use of artificial colorings, flavorings, preservatives, hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup. This is just taking it to a higher level.”

So what is a GMO?

Simply put, a GMO is an organism that has DNA, or genetic make-up, that does not occur in nature. Most of the time, GMO crops are genetically engineered to survive herbicides or resist disease. But often, they are developed to serve customer demand. One of the first GMO-foods to hit the U.S. market was in 1994, when American shoppers and grocers alike whole-heartedly embraced the Flavr Savr Tomato. It had been genetically engineered for delayed-ripening and boasted a longer shelf life than conventional tomatoes.

In 1997, on the heels of global questions about the safety of genetically altered food, the European Union declared mandatory labeling on all GMO food products, including animal feed. The U.S. did not follow suit. By 1999, more than 100 million acres were planted with genetically engineered seeds, and the American marketplace began fully embracing GMO technology.  Today, nearly 90 percent of all corn, sugar beets, soybeans, canola and cotton in North America are GMO-grown, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, and more than 70 percent of all packaged foods contain GMOs.

And, more GMO foods are entering the American marketplace all the time. Just last week, the FDA approved AquAdvantage salmon—the first edible genetically engineered animal to earn such approval. The salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies, are genetically engineered with DNA that causes them to grow to market size much faster than other salmon.

Current U.S. Regulations on GMO Foods 

No federal laws requiring the testing or labeling of genetically engineered foods exist in the United States. However, Americans, largely via grassroots efforts, have led GMO-free initiatives in several places, succeeding in creating eight GMO-free zones. These include the counties of Trinity, Santa Cruz, Marin, Mendocino and Humboldt, all in California; Jackson and Jefferson counties in Oregon, and Maui, Hawaii. The states of Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have all passed mandatory labeling laws. Alaska has required labeling of genetically-modified salmon since 2005. Additional legislation for mandatory GMO labeling is pending in 35 states. However, all of these laws and regulations are in danger of being overturned.

In July, the House of Representatives passed The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015,  known as the DARK Act. This bill, if voted into law, would block states from labeling foods as having genetically engineered ingredients, and negate any GMO labeling laws that have already been passed. In fact, “The preemption language in the bill would nullify over a hundred local laws that, directly or indirectly, regulate genetically engineered crops,” according to a article. This is because federal law trumps a law below it, such as a state or local law.

But the DARK act has no control over individual retailer requirements for GMO-free foods. That’s why the 2018 labeling mandate by Whole Foods has gotten the attention of the state’s cheese industry. A large number of cheesemakers sell cheese to Whole Foods, which is, without question, the largest specialty cheese retailer in the United States. If these companies don’t want Wisconsin cheese labeled as a GMO product by one of their biggest retail customers, they must find alternatives to the feed that animals eat to produce milk.

“Our goal is to work with farmers and cheesemakers to get them moving in the direction of non-GMO products,” Strange says. “We have people on our team who have been personally meeting with cheesemakers in Vermont, Wisconsin and California to work with them not just on the feed, but on the feed mills being used to mix rations for animals. Many of these feed mills are mixing rations for dozens of farmers, and the non-GMO feed can not be mixed with conventional feed.”

Already, Strange says Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont has been GMO-free for three months, and Vermont Creamery is close. Both companies produce award-winning cheese sold at Whole Foods markets across the continent. In fact, Jasper Hill’s Harbison was just awarded ‘Best American Cheese’ last week at the World Cheese Awards in Birmingham, England.

“Our bottom line is we want food to be transparent,” Strange says. “Will we kick out non-GMO products from our stores? Of course not. But we do think customers will make the choice to not consume GMO products once they are labeled. And as we all know, the customer ultimately has the last word.” 

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