Danny Restivo, 2/21/17
The organic food market hit a record $43.3 billion in 2015, increasing more than 11 percent since 2014. In one year, the entire market grew by $4.5 billion, the largest year on record, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2016 survey.
The last several years have signified an ever-increasing appetite for healthy and ethically produced food among consumers and suppliers. Whether its fruits and vegetables (which account for more than a third of organic subcategories in 2015) dairy products, fish and meats or condiments, large commercial stores have taken note, creating greater access to food that meets the demands of consumers focused on health and wellness.
Consumers have cited a variety of reasons for purchasing food that increase transparency in the production process; some are increasingly health conscious and concerned with chemicals and preservatives, while others have trepidations about animal welfare. As food producers harness the merits of an organic label, ethically-minded and health-conscious consumers have been bombarded with different labels as providers attempt to carve out a niche. “Non-GMO,” “cage free,” “grass fed” and “pasture-raised” have become frequent labels appearing on packages. However, many producers have neglected the essence of these labels and applied them under extremely loose guidelines.
In an effort to cement a benchmark for poultry and livestock, the United States Department of Agriculture published its own organic rules on January 19. The rules apply to the USDA’s National Organic Program, which stipulates indoor and outdoor space requirements, clarifies treatment of poultry and livestock, and places limitations on the alterations to cages and pens for animals classified as organic. The regulations also define the soil and vegetation organically-classified chickens and livestock must use.
The USDA’s mandate comes six months after President Barack Obama signed a law that requires food producers to label items produced with genetically modified ingredients. However, the law allows producers to skirt the written label in favor of a barcode that customers can scan with their phone to learn about GMOs in the product. The legislation also allows producers to include a phone number in lieu of a label, giving consumers the option to call for GMO information. The bill, which received bipartisan support from democrats and republicans, pre-empts a similar law in Vermont requiring disclosure of GMO’s on labels. Furthermore, the bill ensures a federal framework, preventing a patchwork of state laws from cropping up.
Organizations like the Organic Consumers Association, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) criticized the bill for giving large corporations a loophole. They argued that low-income consumers don’t necessarily have technology to access GMO information. Supporters of stricter GMO labels point to Europe where their use is rare and heavily regulated. These criticisms come after the United States Food and Drug Administration, as well as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, released comprehensive studies saying GMOs would cause “no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health.” Furthermore, their studies offered no evidence that GMO’s consumed in North America caused higher rates of diabetes, kidney disease, cancer and other ailments compared to GMO-regulated Europe. After their reports, the FDA announced it would monitor non-GMO labels that promoted products as healthier or safer.
In light of these regulatory measures and research, a desire for accountability and transparency in food production among consumers remains. According to an analysis from Credit Suisse, the top 25 food and beverage companies have lost a combined total of $18 billion in market share since 2009. The loss highlights fear over large producers selling items packed with preservatives and questionable techniques. Instead of grabbing canned fruits or cereal boxes from the grocery stores middle aisles, millennials have turned to the perimeter aisles where a great deal of organic and locally-sourced produce is found. While large box stores like Target, Kroger, Wal-Mart and Wegmans have tapped smaller producers, rather than the traditional large players. Some grocery chains have even started their own “natural” food lines. Kroger’s Simple Truth Food Line grew by $1.2
billion in just two years. According to one research firm, the shift to “wellness” food has resulted in 1 percent drop in packaged food per year since 2014. It may seem like a slim margin, buy producers have taken note.
Major companies like General Mills, Campbell’s, ConAgra and other large-scale food companies have started acquiring smaller health-conscious companies, while reshaping their production models. In 2015, General Mills announced it would stop using GMOs in Cheerios, while also reducing the amount of sugar in its cereal by 25 percent. Kraft also announced it was removing synthetic colors and artificial preservatives from its iconic macaroni and cheese. However, the trend aimed at making food production more transparent has bordered on misleading. For example, Hunt’s, the famous producer of tomato paste, tomato sauce and ketchup, released a statement and created a social media advertisement touting its use of non-GMO tomatoes. Unfortunately, there are no GMO tomatoes on the market. Hunt’s received a great deal of criticism for pandering to misinformed customers, while also antagonizing a belief that large food producers can’t be trusted. The advertisement also furthered the myth that genetically engineered food is unhealthy.
As companies look to capitalize on a market eager for labels describing “no preservatives,” “non-GMO,” “organic,” or “no antibiotics,” labels from different organization’s guaranteeing healthy ingredients have proliferated. The USDA offers tips to meat producers who use labels that say “humanely raised,” or “treated with care.” Producers must submit applications before using such labels, but critics claims the benchmarks are too low. Therefore, several nonprofits aimed at increasing animal welfare have filled the void. The American Humane Association, Humane Farm Animal Care and A Greener World have set their own standards to make animal welfare at the forefront of a consumer’s mind. Whole Foods has even provided a 5-step certification process before it contracts with a meat supplier. However, these certified labels vary in their guidelines, including differences in access to pasture for cattle, ammonia levels in cages for chickens and space for pigs.
As President Donald Trump enters office with a pledge to rollback two regulations for every one that is implemented, federal food policy could come under scrutiny. Trump had tapped former Georgia Governor Sunny Perdue to serve as his agricultural secretary. Perdue grew up on a farm and holds a doctorate in veterinary science, before serving as the Peach State’s republican governor from 2003 to 2011. As a governor who oversaw the executive branch of state with 42,000 farms and a strong stake in the cattle industry, Perdue now takes charge of an agency with a $155 billion budget that includes the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (while the agriculture department oversees the processing of meat, the Food and Drug Administration handles food safety for fruits and vegetables). Perdue takes office as farm incomes have dropped be nearly a half, from $120 billion in 2013, to a projected $66.9 billion in 2016. His agency could try and roll back regulations in an effort spark growth in a sluggish industry.
Statements on New Federal GMO Labeling Law
Zippy Duvall, President of The American Farm Bureau Federation:
“President Obama’s signature today will put a stop to the harmful patchwork of state GMO labeling laws and set in place a uniform, national disclosure system that will provide balanced, accurate information to consumers. For decades, biotechnology has made it possible for farmers to grow safe and healthful crops while reducing their environmental impact. We are pleased that Congress and the administration have moved swiftly to prevent consumer confusion and protect agricultural innovation.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT)
“Under Vermont’s law and my amendment, consumers can glance quickly at a product and be able to determine the GMO contents with no need for a smartphone or internet connection.” He added, “What makes sense is to build on what Vermont has done, not come up with an unenforceable, confusing, weak piece of legislation paid for by the large food corporations in this country.”
President Rihard Wilkins, American Soybean Association President
“The passage of this bill allows for both consumers and producers to move on from this fight, and benefit from a uniformed, standardized labeling law across the country. We believe this thoughtfully-crafted compromise provides consumers with the information they need, without stigmatizing a safe and sustainable food technology. We appreciate the support from House leaders to get us to this point. ASA and its state and regional affiliates now encourage President Obama to sign this bill into law. Its enactment will stop a potential patchwork of state labeling and providing farmers, producers, manufacturers and consumers peace of mind as they continue to enjoy America’s safe and affordable foods.”
Gary Hirshberg, Chairman of ‘Just Label It’ Initiative
“Consumers have already begun to see GMO labeling disclosures on many familiar food packages as companies prepared to comply with Vermont’s groundbreaking law,” said Hirshberg. “In the wake of the creation of a national, mandatory labeling system, Campbell’s, Mars and Dannon have already publicly committed to keeping this simple disclosure on their packages as USDA sorts out the rules for implementation of this new law. I have sent a letter to other industry leaders asking them to publicly commit to keeping consumers out of the dark when it comes to GMOs in our food.”
Chip Bowling, The National Corn Growers Association
“This achievement was made possible as members of the food and agricultural value chain came together as never before to advance a solution that works for farmers, food companies and, most importantly, consumers.” Bowling adds, “S. 764 ensures consumers have the access to product information without stigmatizing this safe, proven technology that America’s farmers value. Now that both houses of Congress have come together to address this important issue, we ask that the President take the final step by signing this legislation into law.”
National Association of Wheat Growers
This bill is a crucial step forward in informing customers about a safe and sustainable technology to ensure access to affordable food for consumers. The labeling options allowed in this law will encourage public acceptance of this reliable technology, while preempting the state-by-state patchwork that Vermont’s law alongside other potential future state laws could cause. This technology, which has been proven safe for human consumption, is one of the most reliable ways forward in assuring global food security and access to sustainably-produced food.
Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group President
EWG does not support the Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling proposal. While we support a national, mandatory GMO labeling system and recognize that more foods would be covered by this proposal than are covered by state labeling laws, we cannot support this proposal because food companies would be permitted to make a GMO disclosure through a means that is unavailable or unfamiliar to many Americans. Food companies have already changed their labels to comply with Vermont’s groundbreaking GMO labeling law. If the Roberts-Stabenow proposal becomes law, EWG will do everything in our power to pressure food companies to continue to make a GMO disclosure on the package.
Statements on USDA’s National Organic Program
National Pork Producers Council
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s amendment to the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 would strictly dictate how organic producers must raise livestock and poultry, including during transport and slaughter, and specify, without scientific justification, which common practices are allowed and prohibited in organic livestock and poultry production, thereby eliminating producers’ discretion to make sound decisions about animal care. It also would establish unreasonable indoor and outdoor space requirements for animals. The regulation was cleared by the Office of Management and Budget Wednesday, the last step before becoming final.
Tracy Brunner, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
“The Obama Administration has bowed to the whims and demands of animal activists rather than talking to the industry as a whole to see what is best for the program and for consumers. This rule sends a clear signal that an activist agenda is more important to the outgoing Administration than any true attempt to clarify a consumer’s perception of what ‘organic’ means.” Brunner added, “NOP is a marketing program, not an animal health, welfare, or safety program and certainly not a place to set animal welfare requirements. Cattlemen and women have worked diligently over the past 30 years to develop and improve animal care and handling standards through the Beef Quality Assurance Program, which is continuously reviewed and updated as new science becomes available.”
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Consumers, responsible farmers who provide meaningful welfare and the organic industry should celebrate this landmark victory. Since the USDA began regulating organic agriculture in 2000, consumers have expected—and paid a premium for—an idyllic version of “organic” animal welfare. But in many segments of the organic market, a grimmer reality prevails. Exploding demand for organic products and the absence of clear organic animal welfare standards have allowed the organic market to be flooded with large-scale, industrial producers who profit from the public’s desire for higher-welfare animal products while still employing the terrible practices found on typical factory farms.
The Organic Trade Association
Producing food that meets the USDA Organic label is a choice for farmers and consumers. An ongoing review process by the National Organic Standard Board and USDA keeps that standard strong. Animal welfare, which includes healthy living conditions and the best animal husbandry practices, has always been a high priority of organic producers. In fact, USDA’s National Organic Program’s final rule was the first USDA regulation to mention animal welfare, requiring outdoor access for all organic poultry and livestock and living conditions that accommodate for the health and natural behaviors of animals.
Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry
“This rule has serious potential to force organic farmers and ranchers out of business and is widely opposed by those very folks who are affected the most by this rule. Prices for consumers could rise, and animal health could be put at risk, which may decrease food safety. I will work with USDA under the new Administration to see what can be done to ease this overregulation on our hard-working farmers and ranchers.”
Mike Leventini, Vice President and General Manager at Perdue Foods (statement made during NOP Public Comment Period)
“Perdue supports the NOP’s desire to strengthen what it means to carry the Organic seal. These proposed standards will significantly differentiate organic growing practices from conventional operations and meet consumer expectations that Organic production meet a uniform and verifiable animal welfare standard. We are with you; we need the 3 year timeframe to make it happen.”