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Whole Foods call on labels applauded

NEW YORK — Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, announced Friday that it would require all foods sold in its stores that contain genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such within five years.

The company is the first retailer in the country to require the labeling, and its executives received a standing ovation when they made the announcement during the Natural Products Expo West, a trade conference, in California. A.C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods, said the move came in response to consumer demand.

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Labels now used on Whole Foods products disclose when a product has been verified as free of genetically engineered ingredients by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit certification organization.

“We’ve seen how our customers have responded to the products we do have labeled,’’ Gallo said. ‘‘Some of our manufacturers say they’ve seen a 15 percent increase in sales of products they have labeled’’ as certified by the group.

The announcement ricocheted around the food industry and excited proponents of labeling. “Fantastic,’’ said Mark Kastel, codirector of Cornucopia, an organic advocacy group that favors more labeling.

Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, a campaign for a federal requirement to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients, called the Whole Foods decision a ‘‘game changer.’’

‘‘We’ve had some pretty big developments in labeling this year, with 22 states now having some sort of pending labeling legislation,’’ Hirshberg said. ‘‘Now, one of the fastest growing, most successful retailers in the country is throwing down the gauntlet.’’

He compared the potential impact of the Whole foods announcement to Walmart’s decision several years ago not to sell milk from cows treated with growth hormone. Today, only a small number of milk cows are injected with the hormone.

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