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GMO labelling campaigner Rachel Parent describes her meeting with Galen Weston Jr, executive chairman and president of the Canadian grocery giant Loblaws.

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Rona Ambrose, the former Canadian health minister, once told me that GMO labelling was a matter of corporate responsibility. So I was excited when I got the chance to meet Galen Weston Jr, the executive chairman and president of Loblaw, a huge grocery chain across Canada that owns the “President’s Choice” brand. The brand is known for its emphasis on quality as well as affordability.

Mr Weston is a busy man with lots on his plate. But on 14 January he was kind enough to spend 45 minutes with me to discuss trends in the grocery industry and the directions that Loblaw is taking.

I asked him a range of questions, and was happy with some of the answers, but not so happy with others. Some of his replies seemed to support transparency in food labelling, but others sounded like statements that we often hear from the big agribusiness and biotech companies – such as, “We haven’t seen any evidence that GMOs aren’t safe” and “GMOs are doing a lot of good, such as reducing the use of pesticides.” I think the evidence says otherwise: for example, herbicide sales have increased in Canada by 130% since the introduction of GMOs.

One of my questions was, “If the government were considering mandatory GMO labelling, would Loblaw support, or at least, not oppose it?” I was happy to hear Mr Weston say that they would not oppose it.  This question was important to me, because in 2001, as Mr Weston recalled, Loblaw introduced the President’s Choice Organics line, but at the time ordered its suppliers to remove GMO-free labels from products.

I mentioned that there was a lot of momentum for mandatory GMO labelling and that it would likely happen within a year or two. I was encouraged by Mr Weston’s response: “I think you’re right. The drum beat is building.”

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I was curious about Loblaw’s position on the genetically modified salmon, especially since their sustainable seafood program aims to preserve our precious marine life. This salmon is the first ever genetically modified animal intended for eating. It was engineered with genes from the Chinook salmon and the ocean pout, an eel-like creature.Despite company assurances that the GM salmon will be sterile and kept contained, there are concerns that neither can be guaranteed. So any GM salmon that escape may reproduce and have the potential to contaminate and wipe out our wild ocean salmon, something that could seriously affect the ocean environment. I was disappointed with his reply that they were watching it and hadn’t yet decided whether they would sell it or not.

Unfortunately his response was the same for the GM “Arctic” apple. This apple has been genetically modified so it will not brown for at least 15 days once it has been sliced open. Who needs a non-browning GM apple when we already have the non-GM slow browning Ambrosia apple? Or perhaps we could just use a little lemon juice, right? Simple enough! Also, the Arctic apple contains gene-silencing technology designed to turn off the genes that cause browning – but we don’t know what else those genes might do. For example, they might make the apple more vulnerable to pests or diseases. And the apple has not been tested for possible toxicity or allergenicity, as far as I know.

My conclusion? Loblaw has been more proactive than most grocery chains to date on some issues. For example, it’s great that the President’s Choice brand will be free of artificial colours and flavours. But they could do more. They could make a stand and decide not to sell the GM salmon or the GM Arctic apple. And what about raising the bar and making the President’s Choice line GMO-free, or at least labelling GM ingredients?

When I brought up the recent announcement from Campbell Soup that it was responding to consumer demand by committing to GMO labelling on all of its products in the US, Mr Weston said, “Every company has to make their own judgments.” I believe Campbell Soup is the first of many food companies that will step forward to give their consumers the transparency they want and deserve.

Although Mr Weston and I may not have exactly the same views on GMOs, at least I know that if we customers all stand up together and demand GMO labelling, he’d see the value of it. There is so much more that food manufacturers and grocery chains can do, but thankfully many are starting to listen and are slowly but surely turning in the right direction: towards a cleaner environment and more consideration for public health for the generations to come.

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