Organic food companies in tussle

By Paul Elias
Saturday October 05, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – Spectrum Organic Products Inc. works so hard to ensure the food it sells is free from genetically modified organisms that it sends employees as far as France to purchase corn oil guaranteed to be untainted by biotechnology. 

These extra costs can be worthwhile because some consumers are willing to pay a premium for food labeled “GMO-free,” as Spectrum once stamped on its bottles of canola oil. 

But under pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, Spectrum changed the bottles’ labels. The FDA says it’s misleading to suggest that genetically modified ingredients are inferior. 

That stance has deepened a growing rift between food producers. While the FDA’s action angers the organic community, it delights the biotech and processed food industries. 

“We now struggle to find a way to maintain our commitment to consumers while acceding to FDA demands,” Neil Blomquist, president of Petaluma-based Spectrum, wrote in a letter to the FDA. 

Spectrum’s letter was responding to a November agency missive that questioned the technical accuracy of Spectrum’s “Verified Non-GMO” labels. 

The FDA letter noted that traditional selective breeding methods, where crops with ideal traits are bred together, can also be considered genetic modification. Five other companies received similar letters. None were threatened with action. 

The FDA says the labels may run counter to draft guidelines it published in January 2001 that also reject any requirement to label bioengineered foods as such. An FDA spokesman had no comment on the letters, saying the agency must first review public responses to the draft guidelines. 

“It’s pretty confusing,” said Blomquist. “There aren’t any regulations. There are only recommendations.” 

Still, Spectrum has reduced the information to small print on the back of the bottle: “Third-party verified, this oil is made from canola that was not genetically engineered.” 

Other organic companies receiving letters have reluctantly agreed to modify their labels — or do away with them completely. 

“We don’t agree the labels were misleading,” said James Kelly, chief executive of Van’s International Foods, which dropped its non-GMO label from its organic waffles this year. “But I have better things to spend my time on.” 

Two other producers are working with the FDA on label revisions. Many others continue to brand their products GMO-free. 

“It’s a marketing ploy that some organic companies are using,” said Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which supports biotechnology. “It’s definitely misleading.” 

The FDA letters were sent in response to a complaint from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which broke ranks with its usual left-leaning allies when it came out in support of genetically engineered food. The center obtained copies of the FDA letters through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

Meanwhile, the organic lobby is clamoring for labels on foods with engineered ingredients. 

“It’s ridiculous that the FDA is spending its time going after these small companies,” said Simon Harris of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Organic Consumers Association. “The FDA should be more concerned with the other side of this debate.” 

A measure on the November ballot in Oregon would require such labels. A consortium of food and biotechnology companies raised $4.6 million through Sept. 20 to defeat it; pro-label proponents raised about $84,000. If the Oregon measure passes, it would be the first such law in the United States. 

Abroad, however, 19 countries require labeling and the European Union has since 1998 banned the sale of any new engineered products. 

The ban has angered U.S. exporters and hampered the growth of European agricultural biotech firms. The EU is expected to consider lifting the ban later this year, but may require labeling, which could be a boon to U.S. organic food companies who guarantee their products are biotechnology-free. 

Only about a dozen genetically engineered crops are approved for human consumption, including corn, soy and tomatoes. The crops are engineered to better resist pests and weed killers. The FDA says the ingredients are just as safe as those produced by conventional methods. 

U.S. officials have said the labeling could cost U.S. companies $4 billion a year. The Bush administration opposes mandatory labeling. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is set to implement new organic standards Oct. 21. 

If a product claims to be organic, it must have been produced without pesticides, genetic engineering, growth hormones and irradiation. Whether consumers will understand that an “organic” sticker means the product is biotechnology-free remains in doubt. 

“The consumer is pretty ignorant about this,” said Spectrum’s Blomquist.