Last week I went to the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, as did more than 52,000 other industry attendees. I spent the show interviewing vendors, sampling products, attending seminars, and digging up new information about the industry of natural and organic foods and alternative health products.
According to the Natural Foods Merchandiser’s 2007 Market Overview, the $57 billion dollar natural and organic products industry continues to enjoy rising sales with huge growth in certified organic meat and seafood, beer and wine, pet products, herbs and botanicals, and personal care.
Organic farms have historically been small, family-run businesses producing for local markets, but this is changing as conventional agribusiness continue to get in on the organic and natural foods industry. According to the Organic Consumers Association, in the eyes of General Mills, “organic is not a revolution so much as a market niche.”
For instance, in 1999, Heinz acquired Hain Celestial products for $100 million, which gives them control of more than twenty natural food lines. Other examples of corporate acquisitions of organic processors include M&M Mars owning Seeds of Change, Kraft owning Boca Foods, Cadbury Schweppes owning Green & Black’s chocolate, General Mills owning Cascadian Farms, and more (click here to see a chart of what company owns what.)
Not surprisingly, many new foods were geared toward children, as well as a lot of green, probiotic, and energy drinks for adults. It was a relief that many of these products were organic and there seemed to be a general awarness about GMOs at the expo. Unfortunately, many of the products (there were thousands of exhibitors) were just junk food with the “natural” label, which is meaningless if you’re wanting to eat organic and GMO-free, especially if they contain non-organic soy, corn, canola, cottonseed oil, or dairy.
While there are some organic companies that operate with integrity, consumers cannot mistakenly assume that they all have integrity, or that just because a product is called “something-organics” or “natural” that it is all organic and GMO-free.
Because I couldn’t read every label about new products, I asked several vendors, “Is this organic and non-GMO?” Some said yes, while others replied, “This is natural so I don’t think it is GMO.” Hmmmm.
I had a conversation with one company representative who was touting a children’s line of food. When I asked about the “macaroni and cheese with organic pasta,” she told me they use organic ingredients. When I looked at the label, the cheese, butter, and canola oil were not organic. I asked, “Have you ever heard of rBGH? Your dairy might contain a genetically engineered hormone if it’s not organic or rBGH-free.” She said I should write to the owner about it and didn’t want to discuss it further with me after that.
The point is–buyer beware. When choosing what to buy, make sure you see the USDA organic seal and look at ALL of the ingredients.
On another note, one seminar that I attended at the expo, GMOs: What You Need to Know, discussed organic contamination by GMOs and the progress being made toward ensuring non-GMO choices for consumers in North America.
For years, farmers have known that cross-pollination, blow-over, or genetic pollution, of genetically altered crops has the potential to contaminate their non-GMO crops. The British Soil Association’s report Seeds of Doubt stated:
Widespread GM contamination has occurred rapidly and caused major disruption at all levels of the agricultural industry, for seed resources, crop production, food processing, and bulk commodity trading. It has undermined the viability of the whole North American farming industry.
It is reassuring to know that some leaders with integrity in the organic industry are taking steps to ensure that their organic products are not contaminated by GMOs.Speakers at this seminar included Megan Thompson, executive director of The Non-GMO Project, Michael Funk with The Non-GMO Project and UNFI, Margret Wittenberg, vice president, quality standards and public affairs of Whole Foods Market, and Dr. John Fagan, FoodChain Global Advisors.
The Non-GMO Project, the North American organic and natural product industry’s initiative for non-GMO verification, was discussed. Created by a coalition of industry leaders dedicated to the long-term viability of a safe, healthful food supply, The Non-GMO Project offers:
- a standardized, consensus-based definition of non-GMO;
- a third party verification program to identify products that are compliant with the standard; and
- coordination for industry efforts to address GMO-related challenges such as sustained availability of non-GMO seeds and ingredients.
In the fall of 2009, we will see products that are labeled “Non-GMO Project Verified” through advertisements and retail package labeling. In the meantime, companies are enrolling in the project and coordinating their sourcing of non-GMO ingredients.
Encouraging is that ten organic-food industry leaders—Good Earth Natural & Organic Foods, The Natural Grocery Company, The Big Carrot, Lundberg, Eden, Organic Valley Family of Farms, United Natural Foods, Nature’s Path, WhiteWave, and Whole Foods—initiated and funded this verification project, not the regulatory agencies of the US government. The intent is to ensure standardized testing and the safety of organics in today’s world of mass GMO contamination.
Given the fact that we vote with our dollars, we need to read labels and buy accordingly. Furthermore, we should support companies involved in The Non-GMO Project that are doing what they can to ensure that our organic food remains GMO-free.