Woolworths & GMO labelling

Update to this story

Grass has formally laid a complaint, on 30 October 2013, with the National Consumer Commission requesting that Woolworths comply with the GMO labelling law and correctly label their products that contain 5% or more GMO content. Grass has also asked for a formal apology to Woolworths customers for not complying with the GMO labelling law and the Consumer Protection Act thereby misinforming their customers with the misleading label of “may contain GMO”.

We shall keep you posted…

The background to this story

Near the end of October, the African Centre for Biosafety released more test results on products that contain high incidences of GMO but are not labelled as such. Grass has been corresponding with Woolworths, since October 2012, on this issue of not complying with the GMO labelling law.

ACB’s test’s revealed

Woolworth’s Super Maize meal, 79.78% GM maize content (labelled as “may be genetically modified”) March 2013.

“We are hugely taken aback and disappointed by the test results for the Woolworths’ Maize Meal as this high GM content and misleading labelling flies in the face of their stated position. Woolworths is on record as stating that their policy is to replace or remove ingredients derived from GM crop sources, or to label the final products containing ingredients derived from GM crops, to ensure customer choice,” said Zakiyya Ismail, ACB’s consumer awareness campaigner.

See our correspondence with Woolworths which began in October 2012. The latest correspondence in regards to their Super Maize product labelling is above.

Super Maize, Super Uninformed Customers

Super Maize, Super Uninformed Customers

Latest Correspondence on correct GMO status labelling with Woolworths

Reply:  24 May 2013

Thanks Grass.

I understand your exasperation but if the supplier of the ingredient in question (say the maize in the crisps) can’t give us the assurance that it is GM free then we must protect ourselves by labelling accordingly.

PS A number of consumers are corresponding on this topic so we are getting lots of input.

Sent:  28 May 2013

Greetings Woolworths

It would seem that it has very little to do with Woolworths suppliers since a Woolworths brand of maize still claims “may contain GMO” which is surely 100% possible to be labelled correctly as containing GM maize. It obviously has to do with Woolworths policy which is to not label products correctly. I find it remarkable that Woolworths made a commitment in 1999 to go GMO free and now, 14 years later Woolworths cannot even commit to labelling GMO products correctly. Is there one loaf of Woolworths branded bread that does not contain GMO maize or soya? Why is there soya in almost every loaf of Woolworths bread when it is known that it poses a health risk? Why is Woolworths not giving customers, especially mothers an alternative to these harmful foods?

Is there ANY point in your customers corresponding with you on ANY topic if you can’t even label your products correctly. That is the most basic evidence of transparency and trustworthiness surely?


Older Correspondence on GMO labelling

Sent: Monday, 08 October 2012 14:30 PM

Greetings Woolworths

I just have a simple question – why is the poisoning of South African and South African children being allowed to continue? Why do we not have the right to go to a local store and purchase food that is not going to be hazardous to our health and how is it possible that we are the only country in the world that over 70% of our maize, the staple food of millions, is genetically modified? Why do I need to pay a premium on healthier foods to avoid being contaminated by poisonous ingredients. As a consumer I have the right to know what ingredients are in the products I purchase and I also have the right to refuse to be poisoned by these products.

Why are YOU allowing people to be poisoned?

as taken from the African Centre of Biosafety-

On 2 August 2012 the peer-reviewed Journal of Food and Toxicology published a ground breaking study showing that genetically modified (GM) food could have serious health impacts [i] . This was the longest, most thorough feeding trial carried out on rats to date – two years – covering the lifespan of rats. It was carried out by independent scientists, led by renowned molecular scientist, Professor Seralini of the French University of Caen. The study showed severe impacts on liver and kidney functioning, hormonal imbalance and shortened life spans. After the fourth month of the feeding trials, rats began to develop massive cancerous tumours. The researchers concluded that these impacts were caused by two things the chemical that is sprayed on GM crops called glyphosate, as well as “over-expression” of the foreign gene inserted into the maize.

GM food in South Africa

The variety of maize used in these studies is “herbicide tolerant” maize developed by Monsanto, called NK603. The South African government gave approval for NK603 to enter farmers’ fields and the South African food chain in 2002[ii] . As much as 77% of South Africa’s maize crop is now genetically modified, with NK603 accounting for about 40% of the total maize crop. Some 85% of South Africa’s soya is modified [iii]. Nowhere else in the world is GM maize eaten as a daily staple; elsewhere it is grown primarily for the animal feed and biofuels industry. Other applications include food additives and a variety of industrial uses. The French study is particularly alarming to South African consumers for this reason and we call on the food industry to take action to avoid causing harm to the nation and liability for such harm.

While at least 40 countries have placed bans, severe restriction or strict labelling laws on GMOs [iv] , the South African government has declared GM food safe. South Africa is the ONLY government in the world that has approved the modification of the staple food of the nation. This approval was granted on the basis of safety data provided by Monsanto. This safety data has not been peer-reviewed, is based on a 90 day rat feeding trial and is not available to the public in its entirety because it is protected as Confidential Business Information. Consumer confidence in this safety data is low.

Consumers demand “No GMOs”

The producers of GMOs have mounted a smear campaign against Professor Seralini through the media, in an attempt to have this study dismissed by regulators and the public. Consumers are not fooled by these bullying tactics and independent scientists have come out in public support of the research [v] .

We are outraged to have GMOs in our food. We do not believe that the safety of the technology has been adequately proven. The latest study adds to a large and growing body of science showing that GMOs and associated chemicals will have long term and dire impacts on our health. We hereby demand that your company begins to use non-GM foods, products and ingredients, failing which, we will boycott your products.

We are concerned because:

·         There is no scientific agreement on the safety of consuming GMOs, leading many countries to ban or severely restrict their use.

·         The safety of GM maize is in question. This is a staple for South Africans.

·         Our food is full of GMOs. For example, tests on four products found high levels of GM maize and/or soya [vi] :

o    Bokomo Wheat Free Pronutro (71.42% GM maize and 90.36 GM soya)

o    Nestle Cerelac Baby Cereal (77.65% GM maize)

o    Future Life Energy Meal (100% GM maize and 36.13% soya)

o    Impala maize (66.18% GM maize)

o    Chemicals used in the production of GM crops have been shown to be harmful to our health. The South African government has no capacity to monitor the use of glyphosate or the residue levels left on our food. Alarmingly, from 2005 to 2012 the use of glyphosate increased from 12 million litres to 20 million litres. Similarly, from 2007 to 2011 glyphosate imports increased by 177%[vii].

The biotechnology industry has tried to squash this study instead of carrying out follow-up research to ensure that their product is safe. This tells us that their interest lies in their bottom line, not our health. We look forward to your positive response and effort toward ensuring a healthy South African nation.

Reply: 10 October 2012

Good day.  Thank you for your email. Woolworths labelling always aims to provide our customers with sufficient and accurate labelling information to help them make informed buying decisions. It is not illegal for products to contain GM ingredients in SA, however some of our customers, prefer not to consume products that contain ingredients derived from GM crop sources. For this reason, in 1999 we resolved to remove or replace ingredients derived from GM crop sources from our recipes, wherever possible.  Where not possible, we label our own brand products for customers to make informed choices.

Other popular brands have a different approach to GM, Woolworths can not comment on other brands and would suggest that you direct any queries you have to them direct.

Sent: 11 October 2012

Greetings Woolworths

It is not illegal for products to contain GM ingredients in South Africa as you so confidently state but there has been a law passed stating that food products containing GMO’s must be labeled as such when the Consumer Protection Act came into force in 2011. According to the law, all foods containing 5% or more GM content must be labeled. You are encouraging the suppliers that do not comply with this law to continue to disregard it by stocking their products. Woolworths is complicit in their disregard of the law. You ARE making a “comment” by stocking these products that are not labeled containing GMO’s.

Are all Woolworths products free from GMO’s then? or if they contain GMO’s are they labelled as such? Or is this another ploy in misinformation as in your battery eggs statement since battery eggs are still being used in your prepared products. Could you therefore send me a list of the products that you have labelled genetically modified.

You have also been made aware of another study that highlights the concerns and safety of GM foods. How will Woolworths respond to this, will they begin informing their customers of these harmful products when purchasing them in the Woolworths stores? We have the right by law to make informed consumer decisions.

Another study published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology has shown GMO toxins are in nearly all pregnant woman and fetuses according to an analysis conducted by researchers from the University of Sherbrooke Hospital Centre in Quebec, Canada, 100 percent of pregnant women and their unborn babies tested positive for GMO toxins in their blood, proving that transgenic materials are not effectively broken down and eliminated during digestion as we have all been told. (Source

Reproductive Toxicology (2011) 31: 528-533 / DOI: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2011.02.004

Is  Woolworths going to continue to sell to uninformed mothers knowingly harmful GMO containing products such as the Bokomo Wheat Free Pronutro (71.42% GM maize and 90.36 GM soya) and Nestle Cerelac Baby Cereal (77.65% GM maize) as discovered by the independent tests done by African Centre for Biosafety in March 2012?

Woolworths has been awarded “responsible retailer of the year” three times I think. Woolworths good business journey manager Justin Smith was quoted as saying , “this award honours our customers, shareholders, suppliers and employees who understand that our country’s future growth depends on all of us doing our bit to contribute to a better environment and society that we all share.”

It would seem that your “good business journey” is more about seeming to do the right thing than actually doing it since you are certainly not honouring your customers by keeping them ill and misinformed about products Woolworths stocks that are harmful to their health and is harmful to the environment. Would be inspiring to see Woolworths actually walk their talk.

I look forward to your reply or perhaps that of Mr Justin Smith.

Reminder sent: 15 October 2012

Greetings Woolworths

Could you please confirm receipt of my below mail sent on 11 October 2012 and give me an indication of when I could have the list of products that are the Woolworths brand that have been labelled correctly if they contain GMO ingredients and if not, could you please confirm that all Woolworths branded products do not contain GMO ingredients then. I would also appreciate a response to my other queries.

Reply: 16 October 2012

Thank you for your e-mail. I have transferred your e-mail to the department who is currently dealing with your concern. They will liaise with you directly.

Your reference number: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX


Reply: 6 November 2012
Good day to you

I hope the information provided helps you. If not please advise me so that I may ask a technical manager  to contact you and then you may speak and ask your question to them directly.

1)      GM labelled Woolies branded product list – see attachment
Sent:  20 November 2012

Greetings Woolworths

Firstly, apologies for such a delay in my response but I have work and family commitments so really don’t have much free time to action what I feel so passionately about but I will persevere as believe that consumers are entitled to make informed decisions, especially when it regards the health of their family.

1) GMO labelling – thank you for the list you provided. Are any of these products clearly labelled as containing GMO ingredients? or is this referred to as ‘may contain GM’ on the back label? How many of these products to your knowledge contain more than 5% of GMO ingredients?

Reply:  20 November 2012, 16:48

Good day to you.. I will forward you request to the department and get back to you.

Sent:  Monday, 10 December

Greetings XXXX

Below is the correspondence I have had with XXXX from Woolworths, I am still waiting on a response since her last mail to me below. I appreciate that you are willing to look into this for me as I do realise that I would not receive any real answers from Woolworths otherwise, which also really highlights the inefficiency of this department in communicating with Woolworths customers.

One more query I would like to add to the list below: Are ALL the free range chickens fed with GMO-free grain?

Reply: 12 December 2012

Please see answers to your questions below. It is a very technical field:

1) GMO labelling – thank you for the list you provided.

Are any of these products clearly labelled as containing GMO ingredients?

We label ingredients as potentially from GM crop sources when we are NOT 100 % certain that they are not.

or is this referred to as ‘may contain GM’ on the back label?

We indicate ‘may be GM’ on back of pack.  We say “May be” as NO crop is 100 % genetically modified, and therefore it is also untruthful to say GM if it is not.

How many of these products to your knowledge contain more than 5% of GMO ingredients?

How do you measure “5 % GM”?  What do you want to measure?

We do NOT believe it is about the testing of protein present in the final product.  Most processed foods CANNOT be tested for the presence of GM protein as processing will ‘remove’ these proteins.

Sent: 12 December 2012

Greetings XXXX

 I am out of town today, about to leave, so will have a read through this evening.  Thank you for the follow-up. Appreciated. The other question I posed was about the free range chicken feed – is this GMO free?

Reply: 12 December 2012

“Free range” defines the space the chicken has to move around. It does not cover feed.

As chickens eat a lot of corn, and corn is mostly GM these days, the feed is likely to be GM. Bear in mind that corn is a commodity and is imported and exported all over the world.

Sent: 13 December 2012

I must say since receiving your mail yesterday I have been pretty anxious and after doing some grocery shopping today I actually felt quite overwhelmed by the fact that everything we purchase it would seem is infected with the poison of GMO’s and the frightening thing is that we are not even being permitted to make an informed decision about buying this poison. Regardless of how much GMO is in a product, I have the right to know that a product has been produced using genetically modified organisms. It actually is very simple, if anywhere in the production line, such as in feed GMO’s have been used then it needs to state that clearly on a label.

I am continuing to do some research on this and I will get back to you.

Just a quick question for the department that answered the GMO query –  from my understanding, each GMO has an identity code to ensure the traceability of GMO’s as it may be necessary to withdraw a certain GMO product from the market, if later is it proved that there are concerns about safety of the product. So each GMO event of a product needs to be given a unique identifier. This unique identifier has been integrated in the Cartengena Protocol on Biosafety and in the European Union legislation. Are you saying therefore since your department can’t seem to “measure” the presence of GMO in a particular product that they do not adhere to this unique identifier protocol when producing a GMO product?

Reply: December 14, 2012

I hear you concern but there is no peer-reviewed scientific proof that Genetically Modified Foods are unsafe.

Nevertheless we understand our customer concerns and believe it is our responsibility to ensure that we address them. We have undertaken to eliminate genetically modified ingredients wherever possible and are working hand-in-hand with our suppliers to do so. We also undertake to clearly label those remaining products that contain ingredients from crops which have been genetically modified, so that consumers can make informed choices when shopping. Once a chicken has eaten GMO corn, one cannot detect the presence or absence of the unique GMO markers.   In addition, some GM products like soya oil, which could be in chicken feed, do not even have a unique marker as there are no protein markers in the oil. The bottom line is that if one wants to avoid GMOs, then one has to look at buying organic food.

Sent:  24 May 2013 

Subject: Re: Say no to GMO march against Monsanto.

Greetings Woolworths

Perhaps you could send a Woolworths representative instead? I think it important that Woolworths is aware of the concerning GMO facts being raised by consumers so that they can better meet their customer’s needs. For instance, I was doing some shopping this morning at the Palmyra Woolworths for my daughters birthday party today.  Every packet of crisps I picked up had the statement “may contain GMO” referring to the maize. Why can’t I purchase a packet of POTATOE crisps without it being contaminated with GMO ingredients? Why do I have to stand there and guess if “may” means it actually does or does not contain GMO ingredients. This is absolutely not acceptable.

I really think that someone from Woolworths should be present to glean some information about what consumers are asking for.

You can contact Woolworths (OpsCust@woolworths.co.za) and tell them what you would like them to do about GMO labelling and transparency with labelling. Please remain cordial to enable us to share your letters on our site. You can CC us at grassconsumergroup@gmail.com

See also here for more consumer updates.



Helping you find integrity in the food chain soniam@eategrity.co.za

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2 comments on “Woolworths & GMO labelling
  1. Woolworths continue to thrust their toxic GMO-infested food on consumers. It is clear they don’t care what consumers want. All they do is deflect legitimate queries. Rather give your money to ethical producers.


  2. […] Grass looked at another Woolworths product recently, Oatmeal Digestives. Although the product is named Oatmeal Digestives, there is only 3% oatmeal in the product. Rather astonishing to label a product as being Oatmeal when less than 5% content is oatmeal. On the other hand, Woolworths maintained that they could not accurately label GM products since it was difficult to verify. Even though their Woolworths Super Maize was tested and shown to contain 79.78% GM content it was still labeled as “may be genetically modified”. . (See here for that story). […]


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