A recent series of articles on Genetically Modified Organisms, plant or meat products that have had their DNA artificially altered, at the food and clothing retailer Woolworths sparked intense public reaction. After apologising to Woolworths because we relied on a 1999 story to hold them to their commitment to ‘ban’ GMO some new evidence has come to light.

Woolworths has written to the editor of The Journalist, Sylvia Vollenhoven, to object to an article at www.thejournalist.org.za.

Woolworths said the article was based on a story that first appeared on the IOL website, 15 years ago, in December 1999. The headline of the story claimed “Woolies to ban genetically modified food” and goes on to paraphrase Jonathan Herbert a senior executive at the time saying that Woolworths would remove all GM foods from its shelves by June 2000.

“The headline of the IOL story is misleading as Woolworths did not “ban” GM foods at the time. Neither did we say that we would remove all GM foods by 2000. Woolworth’s position has always been to avoid or label food products with GM ingredients so customers can make informed choices about the food they consume,” said Corporate Communications manager, Neeran Naidoo.

“Regrettably, Woolworths did not have a media relations office at the time and we are not aware of Woolworths raising its concerns about the misleading headline and inaccuracy in the story,” he said.

“The current story in The Journalist claiming “Mixed messages from Woolworths” is therefore based on an incorrect premise. I would appreciate if you can correct the story. We have not reneged on our promise. Currently only 5.3 % of our food contains GMOs and we have committed to reducing the number of products containing GM ingredients by 50% by June 2015,” he said.

The author of the article, Melanie Gosling of Independent Newspapers pointed The Journalist to her source. Glenn Ashton, founding member and ex-chair of the SA Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering (SAFEAGE). He wrote to us saying the following:

“I saw Zubeida’s article quoting the original agreement and I felt it was an accurate representation of what Woolworths originally promised in 1999. This commitment came about in a meeting between myself, Elfreida Pschorn Strauss and three Woolworths executives (Jonathan Herbert, Tom McLaughlin and one other I cannot recall) in Constantia, where they committed to removing all GM products from their line of products ( I think this was before they were stocking external brands – all of their products were own brands which gave them a marked advantage in sourcing GM free ingredients, something we all agreed was a strength in implementing this agreement) and where that was not possible they would clearly label all GM foods or ingredients.”

The difference between what they now claim and what they said is semantic really. As far as I can see there is no substantial difference between the original commitment and what they are saying now so I am unsure about why they are now asking for retraction or correction on such narrow and in my opinion rather spurious grounds. The fact is that after this commitment was made, progress toward implementing the reality was extremely slow and the labeling was less than optimal, with very small labeling indicating in some cases that products “may contain GM ingredients”.