SANTA CRUZ -- New Leaf Community Markets is following in the footsteps of Whole Foods, announcing Wednesday that it will require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms by 2018.

Last month, Whole Foods became the first grocery chain in the U.S. to require GMO labeling, setting a deadline of 2018.

Scott Roseman, co-owner of New Leaf, commended the Austin, Texas-based chain for taking the lead.

"New Leaf Community Markets, by itself, does not have the purchasing power to demand that food producers label their products that contain GMOs," he said.

New Leaf, which has seven locations, is dwarfed by Whole Foods, with more than 330 stores.

"Why is it going to take five years?" asked Mark Woodward of Santa Cruz.

The 2018 deadline gives manufacturers time to update packaging or research alternative ingredients, according to Roseman, who thinks it could "provide the impetus for a federal labeling requirement."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cites resistance to insect damage and hardiness as a benefit of genetically engineering plants. Corn, canola, soybean and cotton plants are used to make ingredients: Cornstarch in soups, corn syrup as a sweetener, and cottonseed, canola and soybean oil in mayonnaise, salad dressings, cereals, breads and snacks.

As of April 1, the FDA completed more than 90 consultations on genetically engineered crops, 30 on corn, 15 on cotton, 12 each on canola and soybean,

and 24 others. The agency supports voluntary labeling.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports 88 percent of the U.S. corn crop was genetically engineered in 2012, up from 2 percent in 2002, and 93 percent of the soybean crop, up from 75 percent a decade ago.

Roseman pointed out New Leaf is one of the early retail members of the Non-GMO Project, founded in 2005, and supported Proposition 37, a state initiative to require labeling that failed with 47 percent of voters in favor.

"We have been concerned about this issue since we learned about the potential and real risks of food grown from genetically engineered seed," he said, citing the need for more study of chemical pesticides and health problems associated with consuming genetically engineered foods.

Close to 3,000 products, "about a third" of New Leaf's packaged products, according to Roseman, have blue tags saying "Non-GMO Project Verified." Whole Foods reports 3,300 products with that label.

"Perhaps up to 50 percent of what we carry would either need to be labeled as possibly containing GMOs, or be dropped from our selection," Roseman said. "(We) strongly encourage those bringing products with at-risk ingredients to change over to non-GMO sources and get certification."

One company that made the switch is Silk, a brand of soy milk.

Silk angered organic customers in 2009 when industry watchdog Cornucopia Institute complained retailers were misrepresenting Silk soy milk as organic after parent company Dean Foods relabeled the product as "natural," an unregulated term. In 2011, Silk became certified by the Non-GMO Project.

Follow Sentinel reporter Jondi Gumz on Twitter at Twitter.com/jondigumz

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