Patty Nowlin and Pat Guyn – the husband and wife owners of Sunnyside Natural Market in Calgary – were in California in 2012. They were there at the same time state residents were asked to vote either for or against mandatory labelling of products that contained GMO ingredients.
One night, they saw a television commercial that blew their minds. “The ad was telling people NOT to vote for mandatory labelling,” recalled Patty. “There was a person in the commercial dressed like a doctor, lying to viewers, whitewashing all the information. Pat and I couldn’t believe it. It was then we realized how much money was behind the anti-labelling movement.”
In the end, 53.7 per cent of California residents voted against the mandatory labelling. But the result of the vote – coupled with what they considered an appalling TV commercial – inspired in Patty her own movement and spurred her to do something.
Project comes to life
In October, the Sunnyside Verified Project came to life, the store’s own “in-house” non-GMO verification process. “We started working on the Sunnyside Verified Project before the government voted against Private Members Bill C291 last May,” said Patty. The bill, which was defeated by a vote of 216-67, would have called for any food that was genetically modified to carry a label.
“Sunnyside Verified is a labelling program that aims to add integrity and transparency to our purchasing policy by labelling products that have been determined to be free of any GMO ingredients,” explained Patty, adding, “A Sunnyside Verified product meets the following criteria:
- The product is certified organic
- The product is Demeter Certified (biodynamic)
- The product is third part verified (example: The Non-GMO Project)
The producer has responded to our inquiries and provided documentation to us verifying risk ingredients as non-GMO.”
The Sunnyside Verified Project took just under three years to completely roll out and it was finalized this fall, in time to coincide with Non-GMO Month (October). “Now – more than ever – we're committed to helping our customers make food choices by labelling all products sold at our store that are grown without GE technology. We feel it is our responsibility to educate consumers on their food choices and we hope other natural food stores follow suit.”
Sunnyside was not forced to start its in-house verification from scratch. The Non-GMO Project, which was created in 2007 by The Natural Grocery Company in Berkeley, California and The Big Carrot Natural Food Market, was a help. “The Non-GMO Project is in Canada,” explained Patty. “However, it wasn’t everything we wanted it to be. Or what we needed. Our customers trust us and so we stepped up and started to do our research.”
Patty said the two founding stores of Non-GMO Project were helpful. “When I lived in Berkley, I shopped at The Natural Grocery Company. And even though there is a lot of competition in our industry, I was impressed with The Big Carrot and The Community Farm Store in Duncan, B.C., who offered to help and were willing to share.”
Sunnyside’s assistant store manager Tyler Doucette was a driving force in the project: he turned out to be the leader of the entire initiative. He had two part-timers to help him, plus Patty when she was available. There were lots of details involved, lots of paper work and the arduous task of contacting suppliers.
“We sent letters to suppliers who had products with potential GMO ingredients to request more information” says Patty. “If the product was not certified organic or third-party verified we wanted to know if they could provide documentation that proved the ingredients in question were not derived from GM sources.” Suppliers that didn’t respond were sent a second request. If they ignored us again, their product was dropped, as we then assumed the ingredient in question was GMO. We encouraged suppliers with GMO ingredients to swap them out so the product could then be verified. We wanted to help them source non-GMO ingredients. SNM has strong relationships with our smaller suppliers, so it was important to us to avoid negatively impacting them with this project. We truly wanted to help them. Some of our smaller suppliers did in fact change their ingredients to non-GMO and were then able to be verified by us.”
How did customers react to this? Patty says there was a core group who weren’t surprised the store created its own verification process “as we’d been talking about this in-store and in newsletters for a long time. Some customers have come in and thanked us, saying they had no idea some ingredients were GMO. There have been lots of thanks and many questions. Our in-store experts have been happy to share info with customers. We are small and we know our demographics. They trust us doing their homework for them. Really, it’s been very positive. We’ve heard nothing negative.”
In fact, Patty thinks her store’s efforts have changed the way some customers shop and buy food. “One customer mentioned she had recently gone to a competitor in Calgary and started asking them what their laying hens ate, if it was GMO feed. She said the store had no idea. Sunnyside’s egg buying guide made me realize customers were asking more questions of other stores, so I guess we have helped them raise their awareness.”
When asked if she recommends other retailers do something similar to Sunnyside’s verification process, Patty answers with a resounding yes. “I absolutely would. There are some people who shop in health food stores and they assume everything in the stores is non-GMO. So it’s important to educate customers that many products do contain ingredients derived from GMOs. It’s up to us to point out which products are non-GMO. The scope of GM ingredients commonly found in grocery stores surprised even us.”
In-house buying guides help
Patty says one thing that has helped is the development of in-house buying guides, which focus on key food groups in the store (eggs, dairy, cheese, meat) with detailed information regarding feed, animal treatment and certification.
“Our goal from the inception of Sunnyside Verified was to provide education to our customers and community about the GMO issue. The federal government recently voted against Bill C-291 mandatory labelling for genetically modified (GM or engineered) foods. Our local MP Len Webber said labelling should be the role of the marketplace and not the government. Sunnyside’s Verification project does just that, and we hope this influences people’s buying decisions and encourages them to take political action if they feel strongly on the issue.” • Photos: Lisa Enman