Straight to the Source
December 11, 2012
As you’ve no doubt heard, California Proposition 37, which would have required genetically engineered (GE) foods to be labeled as such and prohibited GE-containing foods to be labeled as “natural” or “all-natural,” failed to pass on November 6 by just a few percentage points.
California is reporting that Yes on 37 garnered 48.5 percent of the vote compared to 51.5 percent on the No side.
This was the net effect of the $50 million dollar No to 37 campaign, which saturated California voters with misleading ads. It’s a testament to consumer education that they won with such a narrow margin despite outspending the Yes campaign by tens of millions of dollars.
What they didn’t anticipate was the backlash, and the inevitability of labeling now that so much awareness has been brought about in the media and word of mouth.
Finally, Americans will have a discussion about genetically engineered monocultures and the dangers they present to our environment and our health. I want to extend my personal thanks to each and every one of you who participated in the Right To Know campaign.
Just know that there will be plenty of opportunity to keep pushing for GE labeling in the coming year, and if the California ballot did anything, it was to massively increase awareness about GE foods across the US.
It is a critical first step that US states pass legislation; it is the ONLY way our federal government will take action. I am going to share my opinions about Prop 37 over a series of upcoming articles.
Here, I want to address the Natural Products Association (NPA) and ask them to protect the integrity of “Natural” and honor consumers’ choice. Businesses love to market products as ‘Natural’ because it has value to the consumer, but what does the consumer expect from ‘Natural’ goods?
What is the Natural Products Association?
The NPA is the leading trade association for natural products, leading the charge in lobbying Capitol Hill and setting the standards for natural products. The NPA mission statement reads:
“As the leading voice of the natural products industry, the Natural Products Association’s mission is to advocate for the rights of consumers to have access to products that will maintain and improve their health, and for the rights of retailers and suppliers to sell these products.”
The NPA’s Natural Standard for Personal Care Products1 debuted in 2008. It was the first and only natural certification in the US, and the certification has become well recognized in the years since. NPA certified products use natural ingredients, avoid ingredients with health risks, don’t use animal testing, and include a majority of biodegradable or recycled material in the packaging.
What most people do not realize however, is that the NPA’s Natural certification does not actually prohibit genetically engineered (GE) ingredients… In fact, a product can contain 100% GE ingredients and still qualify for their Natural certification! Furthermore, the Association did not support Prop. 37, and Shaw has stated the Association does not support state-by-state GE labeling efforts.
You’re Being Deceived More Often than Not When Shopping for “Natural”
As recently as November, 2012, NPA CEO John Shaw was named one of the Top Lobbyists2. He was also named as one of the top lobbyists for 2010. There can be little doubt that the NPA is in an excellent position to take a strong stand to protect consumers’ right to know and push for better certification standards when it comes to natural products.
Yet the unregulated “natural” food, supplements, and products sector, which is routinely produced with genetically engineered ingredients, toxic pesticides, synthetic chemicals, nitrate fertilizers, and livestock drugs, is actually larger than the certified organics sector. This “natural” market is worth more than $50 billion a year, compared to the certified organic sector, which is a $32 billion per year market.
Polls show that most US consumers are confused about the difference between organic and so-called “natural” products, with many consumers believing that “natural” means “almost organic” or even “better than organic,” but of course “natural” products are typically much cheaper than the organic varieties, yet typically cost more than conventional products not labeled “natural.” In other words, the $50 billion+ “natural” products sector is basically built upon low or non-existent standards, and this ability to charge a premium without actually having to use premium ingredients is what’s being protected by organizations fighting against GE labeling.
Who is the NPA Working for?
So is the NPA really lobbying on your behalf on the Hill? In a recent interview with Newhope3603, Shaw is quoted as saying that:
“NPA continues to move aggressively, in Washington, DC, and all across the US, on behalf of its members… The members at NPA are expressing confidence in us. Membership is our No. 1 priority as we move forward, not only to expand, but also to maintain current members and make sure their needs are being met…”
So, who are the members of the National Products Association? Members4 of the NPA include not just trusted natural and organic brands, but also some of the biggest pharmaceutical and chemical companies in the world — in essence some of the premiere opponents to all things natural and/or organic, including:
A press release5 declaring the Association’s opposition to Prop. 37 promulgated one of several false statements about Prop. 37, designed to scare people away from GE labeling:
“While the Natural Products Association… support consumers’ right to know about their food ingredients, NPA has concerns regarding the enforcement provision and how the proposition defines natural foods. ‘Proposition 37 places every supplier, manufacturer, and retailer of food products at risk of unreasonable and frivolous litigation,’ NPA’s official position said. ‘We are concerned the restrictions on natural foods in the proposition language could create a difficult business environment in California and further hinder the ability of our members to sell natural products.’ CRN said it opposes Prop 37 because it was not created to protect public health…”
That’s a truly telling statement. Because certainly, opposing accurate labeling of genetically engineered products is not, and cannot be, a viable stance of any organization truly dedicated to consumer rights. According to an assessment of the litigation incentives in Prop 37 by legal expert James Cooper, PhD, of George Mason University6, the scope and certainty of Prop 37 make frivolous lawsuits highly unlikely. The press release also falsely claims Prop 37 “includes bounty hunter enforcement provisions”. It does not.
John Shaw stated that, “NPA appreciates the contributions of our valued members in crafting this position.”
Rising Trend: Lawsuits Against Unnatural Products Bearing “Natural” Label
Ironically, in the wake of the failure to pass Prop. 37, consumers are taking companies to court over products using the “natural” label when in fact they contain GE ingredients. (The latest example of this growing trend is Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish Crackers7, which contains GE soy.) In November of last year, a federal court did uphold the right of states to prohibit use of the term “natural” on foods produced through genetic engineering.
In Briseno v. Conagra Foods, Inc.8, in ruling on a motion to dismiss, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that because the FDA has not established any definition of the term “natural,” state law could be invoked to assert that a claim that genetically engineered food is “natural,” is unlawful false advertising. Several other courts have also concluded that state laws regulating or restricting use of the term “natural” are NOT preempted by the FDCA as amended by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.
It’s Never Too Late to Do the Right Thing
When it comes to genetically engineered products, the NPA seems to struggle under pressure.. Last year, in response to the lack of oversight, NPA said it was developing its own standard for natural claims on food products, which it planned to introduce in 20129. No such standards were ever introduced.
NPA NorthWest Supports Proposition I-522 to Label GE Foods…
Interestingly enough, GE labeling supporter Roxanne Green from PCC Natural Markets10 –a certified organic retailer that supported Prop. 37 — recently joined the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the NPA. What this means is that while the NPA’s CEO, John Shaw, is working against labeling of genetically engineered ingredients, the elected President, Roxanne Green, is working for it, as evidenced in the announcement that NPA Northwest supports Washington State’s initiative I-522 to label GE foods in the state11.
PCC Natural Markets has already contributed $100,000 in support of I-522 to get it on the November 2013 ballot. (The current goal is to collect 320,000 signatures, recommended by the Secretary of State’s office to ensure enough valid signatures by the deadline at year’s end.) On October 5, the NPA Northwest also announced a $10,000 donation in support of the labeling initiative12.
It will be interesting to see what develops from this leadership over the long-term. My hope, of course, is that Shaw will reconsider the path the association has taken with regards to genetically engineered ingredients, and do the right thing — protect the integrity of “Natural” and support consumers’ right to know.
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has launched a national petition on behalf of consumers asking the NPA to “amend its certification process for its NPA Natural Seal to exclude any and all genetically modified ingredients” in order to stop consumer fraud. According to the OCA13:
“The NPA advertises itself as working on behalf of consumers who want to purchase products that they believe are safe and authentically natural,” said Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the OCA. “Yet nowhere in its personal care products certification process does the NPA screen for genetically modified ingredients, and nowhere on these products is there a label that says ‘may contain genetically modified ingredients’. This is an outright act of consumer fraud.”
Again, there’s room for hope yet that NPA as a whole will take the higher road on this issue and do what is right for consumers, not to mention help establish a firm ground of consumer trust for its members that are truly dedicated to manufacturing superior, wholesome, all-natural and/or organic, safe and health promoting products. Additionally, increasing lawsuits over false or misleading use of the “natural” label will cause the label to lose value, which will set the entire industry back to square one 14.
No matter how you look at it, transgenic, synthetic life forms are very difficult to pull off as “natural.” And if they’re concerned now, they better get ready for the lawyers who took on Big Tobacco, and won, are now taking on the food industry. According to an October 15 article by BBC News15:
“Don Barrett likes his opponents powerful, and rich. He is the lawyer whose decade-long battle to force the tobacco companies to admit they knew cigarettes were addictive and pay the medical costs of victims was depicted in the film The Insider.
… Mr Barrett’s case against Big Food is that companies are misrepresenting their products, promoting them as “natural” or “healthy”, when in fact, he says, they are no such thing. His mission is to make them stick to the letter of existing laws which, he says, regulators have been too weak to enforce. He says that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees food safety in the US, has merely been writing warning letters, which he thinks will not be enough.
… What he himself is fighting for, he says, is people’s freedom to make a choice. “Nobody’s trying to tell the American people what they have to eat or what they cannot eat, the American people can make those decisions for themselves. It’s all about free choice. To have free choice you have to have accurate information. That means Big Food, the food companies, have to start telling the truth about what’s in their product. The law requires it.”
Yes, the issue of consumers’ right to know is NOT going away..There is always more work to be done, and donating to the the Organic Consumers Fund will help several states that are pursuing the right to know genetically engineered foods by passing state legislation.
Over 60 countries around the world label genetically engineered foods, the U.S. is finally waking up. Our food system requires transparency, it’s a shame we have to fight so hard for a basic right.