As we head into 2014, there are several stories that I’ll be keeping a close eye on, all of which could have a monumental impact on the organic food industry.
While there easily could have been a lot more, here are My Top 5 Organic Food News Stories for 2014.
SINGLE INGREDIENT LABELING OF GMOs
Over the last few months, the rumors about single ingredient labeling of GMOs have really been heating up.
First off, what is “single ingredient labeling of GMOs”?
Single ingredient labeling of GMOs means that any food where there is only one ingredient – apples, corn, papayas, etc. It is just that one piece of food, nothing else.
If this were to get approval, it would be a deal that is completely negotiated out of the public eye, with the Obama administration and the conventional food industry both signing off on it.
Why would the conventional food industry agree to this?
With the outcry against GMOs and the call for GMO-labeling greater than ever before, Big Food would see this as a relatively painless yet strategic concession. The thinking would be to give in on this one but not on the labeling of all GMOs, most notably processed foods (soda, candy, snack food, etc.).
Since the labeling would only be for single ingredient foods, processed foods would not be impacted because they have multiple ingredients.
Why would the Obama administration agree to this?
In 2007 when on the campaign trail, President Obama said he would label GMOs (see video above). Since then, he has been a complete disaster for organic food, and this step would be his attempt to save face with the organic community.
Those in the organic industry who would be supportive of single ingredient labeling of GMOs would say this is a very significant victory and gets us one-step closer to our goal of GMO-labeling for all food.
Those in the organic industry who would be against single ingredient labeling of GMOs would say that this step would actually make it harder to get all GMOs labeled. Why?
Because the Obama administration would have made this one concession and would not make a second one for processed food. Furthermore, it would give additional ammunition to politicians who are already against GMO-labeling. They could say “Hey, we’re now labeling GMO-foods. What more do these people want?”
The real question would be whether single ingredient labeling would make it easier or harder to achieve the labeling of all genetically-engineered foods. The answer is uncertain, but it is sure to cause a heated debate among organic food activists.
SUNSET RULE OF THE NATIONAL ORGANIC PROGRAM
Arguably, the most important news story of 2014 has to do with maintaining the integrity of organic standards.
A few months ago, the USDA changed a rule regarding how “prohibited substances” are treated.
This rule is referred to as the Sunset Rule – meaning, specially approved or prohibited substances have a five-year period, then fade away into the sunset (expire), and are no longer allowed. Previously, this time frame could have been extended if a 2/3rds majority of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) decided to renew the substance.
Now, this new rule states that a prohibited substance stays on the list indefinitely until a 2/3rds majority vote of the NOSB decides to remove it.
So, instead of a prohibited substance automatically coming off after five years, it stays on indefinitely until it gets voted off. This completely puts the burden on consumer and environmental groups, and makes it much, much harder for a prohibited substance to get removed from the list.
Some of the most respected watchdog groups, including the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Beyond Pesticides, and Food & Water Watch, have ripped this new rule and said that it “guts the national organic law”, “is unfair to producers trying to produce a truly organic product”, “is unfair to consumers trying to make meaningful purchasing decisions”, “lowers the bar for much of the organic market”, and “circumvents public process”.
Even though she didn’t mention them by name, Melody Meyer, Vice President for United Natural Foods and chair of the board of the directors of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), responded and effectively called these watchdog groups liars.
Infuriated by what Melody Meyer had to say, Jim Riddle, former chair of the National Organic Standards Board, wrote a scathing response to Melody Meyer’s blog post and resigned from the OTA in protest.
Who to believe?
All I know is that the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, and Food & Water Watch are some of the most important and respected watchdogs organizations that we have in the organic industry, and they do absolutely impeccable work. I trust these people completely.
The OTA, on the other hand, represents the interests of organic corporations, not organic consumers, and is one that has a very checkered past.
Because of the recent government shutdown, October’s NOSB meeting never took place. So, this rule should get discussed at the next NOSB meeting in April in San Antonio. If there is no resolution on this rule at that time, expect lawsuits to be filed.
This is a very, very serious issue.
GMO-LABELING IN NEW YORK
After suffering through a tough loss in Washington state, organic activists are now asking what is the next potential state to approve GMO-labeling. While there are numerous states that are attempting to approve GMO-labeling, the most high profile of them all is New York.
Several months ago, New York state GE-labeling hearings were held in the Bronx and some state assembly members, most notably Linda Rosenthal (below, in red), are pushing very, very hard for this legislation to pass.
Unlike California or Washington, New York is not voted on by the state’s citizens. Instead, the state’s assembly members and senators will be the ones who decide if labeling gets pushed through or not.
As of now, we must get through two separate subcommittees in the Assembly, then it would go to an Assembly vote, and ultimately it would have to get through Senate as well.
I have heard two things.
1) Even if we get through the Assembly, getting through the Senate will be brutally difficult. This is because the opposition’s lobby has a constant presence in Albany and carries tremendous influence with state senators.
2) If Governor Cuomo wants to make it happen, he has the political muscle among the Senate and Assembly to do so. No word yet on his willingness or desire to get involved with this issue.
One thing is quite certain, however. A LOT of work remains to be done (i.e., lobbying) if we want to make GMO-labeling in New York a reality.
However, if it were to happen, it would be a game-changer, almost in the same way that California would have been.
(Below is my interview with Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, after the NY state GE-labeling hearings in this past August.)
FDA TO TAKE ACTION ON THE “NATURAL” LABEL?
In one of the most shameful moves that I have ever seen, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the major trade organization of Big Food, filed a petition with the FDA seeking approval to use the word “natural” on products that contain genetically-engineered ingredients.
The reason for this appeal?
Many major food companies, including Naked Juice (Pepsi) and Kashi (Kellogg’s), have faced or are facing class actions lawsuits for using the word “natural” on products that contain GMOs and/or synthetic substances.
Clearly, this move is a desperate attempt to fend off some of these lawsuits.
So far, the FDA has refused to define the word “natural” and has left it up to consumers to decide what “natural” means.
However, I don’t believe for one second that the GMA has filed this petition just “hoping” that the FDA will do something. I believe there is a plan in place with the FDA and that we could hear something in 2014.
Why is this story relevant to organic consumers?
Too many people continue to falsely believe that “natural” products are better than “organic” ones. Nothing could be further from the truth.
APPROVAL OF GE-SALMON
Despite the fact that nearly 2 million people have already told the FDA to reject genetically-engineered salmon, approval of this FrankenFish could take place in 2014.
Each year, the Obama administration seems to “punt” on deciding what to do with GE-salmon, but logic would dictate that a delay can’t go on forever. Therefore, don’t be surprised to see a decision on GE-salmon in 2014.
For the biotech companies, this is an enormous issue because blocking GE-salmon could not only result in delays or denials of other genetically-engineered animals, but it would be a huge setback for the entire industry, one that the Obama administration views as incredibly important.
For those of us against GE-salmon, this FrankenFish could ruin the ecosystem of the ocean forever and could breed with other fish, such as wild brown trout. Already, 59 retailers representing 4,662 grocery stores across the country have agreed not to sell GE-fish.
This is a dangerous product and is completely, completely unnecessary.