A Berkeley, Calif.-based naturals grocer is leading a national campaign to pressure food manufacturers to disclose if they use genetically engineered ingredients in their products.

The ?People Want to Know? campaign will ask manufacturers to prove that their products contain no genetically modified ingredients and to refrain from using any in the future.

In late November, The Natural Grocery Co. sent a letter to 6,000 naturals stores in the United States asking them to join the campaign. Sometime early in 2004, a letter will be sent to hundreds of food and supplements manufacturers asking for answers.

?We want to let the manufacturers know that people are concerned about GMOs and that people have power,? said Corey Nicholl, an employee of The Natural Grocery Co.

The idea for the campaign came to employees after a customer asked if the soy lecithin used in many products is genetically modified.

The employees didn?t know.

So they started reading labels of nonorganic products, looking for suspect ingredients. Primarily, they were looking for products that contain soy or corn—two crops that have been genetically engineered and from which a variety of ingredients are produced—sweeteners, starch, preservatives, thickening agents and more. They found 650 different products, including supplements, from 300 manufacturers that they have questions about.

By early December the store had received more than 100 letters of support from other naturals retailers. The names of all the stores participating will be printed on the letter to the manufacturers.

The stores won?t ask food makers to place labels on products, Nicholl said. But they want detailed information. Responses of the food companies will be posted on a public Web site.

David Ottoson, owner of Rainbow Foods in Juneau, Alaska, supports the campaign. He won?t sell products known to contain genetically modified ingredients. The problem is, he doesn?t know which products should be banned. ?It?s kind of a dirty little secret of the food industry about how much GMO is in food,? Ottoson said. ?Most people are aware of the GMO issue. But it doesn?t occur to them that they?ve probably been eating genetically modified foods.?

Food products are easily checked for GMOs, noted John Fagan, chief scientific officer for Genetic ID, an Iowa company that tests food and agricultural products. The firm performs tests for ?hundreds? of companies, Fagan said. Companies that export food to Europe and Asia must provide documentation that proves products are made without genetically modified ingredients.

?Companies know that consumers are concerned,? Fagan said. ?They know that being GMO-free adds value to their products.?

Products labeled as organic are, by definition, not made with GMOs. The Hain Celestial Group makes a variety of organic foods that contain no genetically engineered ingredients, said Gerry Amantea, vice president of technical services.

?We follow rigid standards from the farm through the processing chain,? Amantea said. ?There is no mixing with genetically engineered products.?

He did say, however, that the company can?t assure that its nonorganic products are made without GMOs. ?We provide customers a choice. They can rest assured that if a product has the USDA organic symbol that it is free of genetically engineered ingredients,? Amantea said.

Joe Lewandowski is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer. He can be reached at word-dog@comcast.net.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 1/p. 1