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Why Are Some of the Most Popular Organic Brands Trying to Take Down Consumer Labeling Efforts?

You may be surprised by the companies siding with the likes of Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Dow and other behemoths over the right to know what foods are genetically modified.
 
 
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Inside the battle over California’s ballot initiative for labeling of genetically engineered foods, Prop 37, is another battle for money. It’s no surprise that more than $14 million of the over $26 million raised to defeat the “Right to Know” labeling initiative is from the biotech industry. And it’s not shocking that the nation’s largest food corporations – PepsiCo, Nestle, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Del Monte, Kellogg, Hershey, etc. – have kicked in most of the rest.

But then there are some surprises. Companies with no obvious stake in the GE foods labeling battle like Morton Salt, Ocean Spray Cranberries, and Godiva have contributed thousands of dollars. And conscientious shoppers may not be aware that they are buying organic products from brands owned by the companies fighting to defeat Prop 37.

The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog organization, recently published an infographic telling which organic brands are owned by major corporations that oppose GE food labeling – as well as which organic companies and brands are supporting the pro-labeling “Right to Know” campaign (full disclosure: I'm on the policy advisory board of the Organic Consumers Association, which supports the Right to Know campaign).

Coca-Cola might not want to label the genetically engineered corn used to make the high fructose corn syrup in its sodas, but it also owns organic and “natural” brands like Honest Tea and Odwalla. Likewise, PepsiCo, owner of Izze and Naked Juice, donated $1.7 million to oppose Prop 37 – more than every other donor except Monsanto and DuPont, and even more than the other four major biotech corporations (Bayer, BASF, Dow, and Syngenta).

Other brands owned by Prop 37-opposing corporations include Lightlife and Alexia (owned by Conagra); Kashi, Gardenburger, Bear Naked, and Morningstar Farms (Kellogg); Cascadian Farm Organic, Muir Glen and Larabar (General Mills); R.W. Knudsen Farms and Santa Cruz Organic (Smucker); and Silk and Horizon Organic (Dean Foods).

By publishing this information, the Cornucopia Institute made quite a wave. “It's amazing how many emails we've gotten from people saying, ‘I never knew that Kellogg owned Kashi!’ They feel betrayed,” said co-founder Mark Kastel. He adds that consumers might have been in the dark because, “You'll never see General Mills on the label of Glen Muir or Cascadian Farms, you'll see Small Planet Foods,” a practice he finds deceptive.

“People aren't just buying the organic cereal, the organic frozen vegetables,” he continues. “They are buying the story behind the food, and organics has always had this romantic story about stewarding the environment and humane animal husbandry, and one of the reasons consumers assume organic food is more expensive is because economic justice for the farmer is built into the price.” He accuses large corporations with disingenuous organic brands of “farming by press release,” adding that, “It's a lot easier to build a fancy press release and tell how much of your power comes from wind power than it is to deal with many small, family farmers.”

But Cornucopia doesn’t identify itself as “anti-corporate.” Kastel says, “These issues aren't about corporate scale, they are about corporate ethics.” The infographic supports this by identifying a number of organic companies and brands that have donated to the Right to Know campaign, supporting Prop 37 and the labeling of GE foods. These include: Nature’s Path, Amy’s, Annie’s, Dr. Bronners, Nutiva, and more. In fact, since the infographic was initially released, he says some companies have donated to support Prop 37 and then asked Cornucopia to add them to the infographic.

Honest Tea, which was acquired by Coca Cola in 2011, assures customers that it retains 100 percent autonomy, even though its owner is one of the biggest funders of No on Prop 37. Honest Tea points to its own organic certification, its voluntary labeling of its products as free of genetically engineered ingredients, and even its funding of the federal labeling effort, the Just Label It campaign, as evidence of its commitment to the labeling of genetically engineered foods and its independence from its parent company.

The Just Label It campaign, funded by Honest Tea, Horizon Organic, Annie’s, Amy’s, Organic Valley, Stonyfield, and others, focuses its efforts on convincing the FDA to require labeling on all GE foods nationally. Honest Tea says it funds Just Label It but not the pro-Prop 37 Right to Know campaign because it feels the best use of its limited funds is focusing on the national campaign. According to the company, it does not have the funds to devote to smaller, more limited, statewide efforts around the country.

The Right to Know campaign’s co-chair, Dave Murphy, disagrees with this logic. “California is the eighth largest economy in the world,” he says, noting the impact that requiring labeling in this one state will have. Additionally, he lacks faith that the FDA, which has opposed requiring labels of GE foods to date, will be swayed in the near future. On the other hand, a majority of California voters (and a majority of Americans) support GE food labeling, and the ballot measure has a real chance of passing. That said, Murphy is adamant that he does not wish for anyone to boycott any organic products, no matter what their parent company is up to. “That will only hurt the farmers,” he says.

Kastel – a man not known for mincing his words – uses stronger language, calling Just Label It a “damage control scheme” that organic giants set up during a time when they were criticized for agreeing with the USDA’s call for “coexistence” between organics and GE crops. “Their kneejerk response was to thump their chest about how anti-GMO they are.” He adds, “Just Label It accomplished nothing and it never will. As long as we have the campaign finance system we have, it never will.”

The Cornucopia Institute hopes to add a “Missing in Action” section to its infographic, calling out the enormous corporations that have not donated to either side of Prop 37. That list will include Hain Celestial, Stonyfield and Whole Foods. “We're hoping there will be some level of embarrassment,” he says.

Stonyfield’s director of organic and sustainable agriculture, Britt Lundgren, ensures customers that it has endorsed Prop 37. “Although our financial donations have been solely to Just Label It, we support all efforts to require labeling of genetically engineered foods,” she said. “We believe that consumers have a right to know what's in their food and that genetically engineered ingredients are fundamentally different from their non-genetically engineered counterparts and people have a right to make a decision about whether or not they want to consume those foods.”

So why the choice to fund one and not the other? “Stonyfield invested in supporting Just Label It long before the idea of having a California ballot initiative came to our attention so we made that decision and we invested our funds there,” Lundgren explains. “We only have so much money that we could put toward these things, unfortunately.”

Unfortunately, even though Prop 37 is now polling at 65 percent support, its passage is by no means a slam dunk. So far the campaign in support of labeling has raised $4.5 million, but needs $6 million to $10 million just to try and compete with other side's deep pockets. And money counts, as illustrated by a failed California ballot initiative to tax cigarettes and use the proceeds to fund cancer research that the state voted on in June. It received 67 percent support in March 2012 – before tobacco companies spent nearly $50 million to fight it. By Election Day, June 5, the measure lost narrowly.

It is certain that the food and biotech industries will bury the Prop 37 campaign in a flood of corporate cash. But what is not yet known is whether the Right to Know campaign will receive the resources to counter that cash in time for the election on November 6.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."

 
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