What is really behind the labels at Whole Foods? (photo: Getty Images
Written by Ronnie Cummins for CounterPunch and RSN
On Jan. 31, organic and natural foods giant Whole Foods Market (WFM) once again attacked the Organic Consumers Association, the nation’s leading watchdog on organic standards, as being too “hard-line” for insisting that retailers like WFM stop selling, or at least start labeling, billions of dollars worth of so-called “natural” foods in their stores – foods that are laced with unlabeled, hazardous genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.
WFM’s most recent attack on OCA predictably backfired, throwing gasoline on the fiery debate surrounding my previous essay “The Organic Elite Surrenders to Monsanto.” In that essay, written in January 2011, I criticized WFM and several other well-known organic companies for their foolish (now hopefully repudiated) stance of espousing “co-existence” with the USDA and Monsanto, in exchange for minimal federal regulation of genetically engineered crops.
In subsequent articles OCA has called for an end to “organic infighting” and for the organic industry, farmers, and consumers to join forces and pass laws or state ballot initiatives (like the current campaign in California) that would require mandatory labels on products containing genetically engineered ingredients, as well as to make it illegal to label or market GE-tainted foods as “natural” or “all natural.”
Anger is now running so high against Monsanto and the USDA, as well as anyone appearing to tolerate “co-existence” with either group, that rumors are fast spreading that Monsanto has bought out, or plans to buy out, WFM. That rumor is untrue. However, it has focused attention once again on the critical issue of food labeling. WFM, and all of us in the organic community, must put an end to labeling fraud in the “natural” products sector, by passing laws that will require brands and supermarkets to clearly label all genetically engineered ingredients on their products.
Growing awareness has created a strong organic movement
Millions of health-minded Americans, especially parents of young children, now understand that cheap, non-organic, genetically engineered, industrial food is hazardous. Not only does chemical- and energy-intensive factory farming destroy the environment, impoverish rural communities, exploit farm workers, inflict unnecessary cruelty on farm animals, and contaminate the water supply, but the end product itself is inevitably contaminated.
Routinely contained in nearly every bite or swallow of non-organic industrial food are genetically engineered ingredients, pesticides, antibiotics and other animal drug residues, pathogens, feces, hormone-disrupting chemicals, toxic sludge, slaughterhouse waste, chemical additives and preservatives, irradiation-derived radiolytic chemical by-products, and a host of other hazardous allergens and toxins.
If common sense weren’t enough, scientists warn us that a public health Doomsday Clock is ticking. Big Biotech and Big Ag are the root cause of 80 million cases of food poisoning every year in the US, as well as an epidemic of allergies, reproductive disorders, food-related cancers, heart attacks, and obesity. Within a decade, these diet- and environment-related diseases – heavily subsidized under our Big Pharma/chemical/genetically-engineered/factory farm system – will likely bankrupt Medicare and the entire U.S. health care system.
Likewise millions of green-minded consumers understand that industrial agriculture poses a terminal threat to the environment and climate stability. A highly conscious and passionate segment of the population is beginning to understand that converting to non-chemical, non-genetically engineered, energy-efficient, carbon-sequestering organic farming practices, and drastically reducing food miles by relocalizing the food chain, are essential preconditions for stabilizing our out-of-control climate and preparing our families and communities for future energy and resource shortages.
Millions of us – consumers, farmers, activists – now realize that unless we act quickly, global warming and climate chaos will soon severely disrupt industrial agriculture and long-distance food transportation, leading to massive crop failures, food shortages, famine, war, and pestilence. Even more alarming, accelerating levels of greenhouse gases (especially from cars, coal, cattle, and related rainforest and wetlands destruction) will soon push global warming to a tipping point that will melt the polar icecaps and possibly unleash a cataclysmic discharge of climate-destabilizing methane, now fragilely sequestered in the frozen arctic tundra.
Thanks to this growing consumer awareness – and four decades of hard work – the organic community has built up a $30-billion “certified organic” food and products sector that prohibits the use of genetic engineering. The rapidly expanding organic/natural products sector – organic (4% of total retail sales) and natural (8%) – now constitutes more than 12% of total retail grocery sales, with an annual growth rate of 10-15%. Even taking into account what appears to be a permanent economic recession and a lower rate of growth than that seen over the past 20 years, the organic and natural market will likely constitute 31-56% of grocery sales in 2020.
This consumer-driven movement, under relentless attack by the biotech and Big Food lobby, and with little or no help from government, has managed to create a healthy and sustainable alternative to America’s disastrous, chemical- and energy-intensive system of industrial agriculture. Millions of organic consumers are now demanding food and other products that are certified organic and non-GE, as well as locally or regionally produced, and minimally processed and packaged.
The myth of “natural” remains a threat
As impressive as this $30-billion Organic Alternative is, it remains overshadowed by an additional $50 billion in annual spending by consumers on products marketed as “natural.”
Recent polls indicate that many green-minded consumers remain confused about the qualitative difference between products labeled or advertised as “natural,” versus those labeled as organic. Many believe that “natural” means “almost organic,” or that a natural product is even better than organic.
Walk down the aisles of any Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market, or any upscale supermarket and look closely. What do you see? Row after row of attractively displayed, but mostly non-organic “natural” (i.e. conventional) foods and products. By marketing sleight of hand, these conventional foods, vitamins, private label items, and personal care products become “natural” or “almost organic” (and overpriced) in the “natural” supermarket setting.
It’s no wonder – and no accident – that consumers are confused. Companies selling these products are simply telling us what we want to hear, so they can charge a premium price.
In fact, all these “natural,” “all-natural,” and “sustainable,” products are neither backed up by rules and regulations, nor a third-party certifier. Most “natural” or conventional products – whether produce, dairy, or canned or frozen goods – are produced on large industrial farms or in processing plants that are highly polluting, chemical-intensive and energy-intensive.
Test these so-called “natural” products in a lab and what will you find? Pesticide residues, Genetically Modified Organisms, and a long list of problematic and/or carcinogenic synthetic chemicals and additives.
Trace these “natural” products back to the farm or factory and what will you find? Climate destabilizing chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and sewage sludge – not to mention exploited farm workers and workers in the food processing industry. Of course there are many products in WFM, Trader Joe’s and other natural food retailers that bear the label “USDA Organic.” But the overwhelming majority of their products are not.
Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if we were living in normal times, with a relatively healthy population, environment, and climate. Conventional products sold as “natural” or “nearly organic” would be just one more example of of chicanery or consumer fraud.
But we are not living in normal times.
Demanding that natural and conventional products and producers make the transition to organic is a matter of life or death. And standing in the way of making this great transition are not only Fortune 500 food and beverage corporations, Monsanto, and corporate agribusiness, as we would expect, but the wholesale and retail giants in the natural products sector as well.
The full transformation to organic begins with us
We cannot continue to hand over 88% of our consumer dollars to out-of-control, biotech, chemical-intensive, energy-intensive, greenhouse gas- polluting corporations and “profit-at-any-cost” retail chains such as Wal-Mart.
We must not allow the “natural” sector to degenerate into a “green-washed” marketing tool that merely disguises unhealthy and unsustainable food and farming practices. We must not allow “natural” to become a green shield for Monsanto and the biotech industry in their quest to take over global agriculture.
Instead, we must demand that the “natural” sector move our nation toward an organic future. How – and how quickly – can we move healthy, organic, and “natural” products from a 12% market share, to becoming the dominant force in American food and farming?
This is a major undertaking, one that will require a major transformation in public consciousness and policy.
But it is doable. And absolutely necessary.
The first step – before we overthrow Monsanto, Wal-Mart, and Food Inc. – is to put our own house in order. That means shopping for certified organic products.
What does certified organic or “USDA Organic” mean? Certified organic means the farmer or producer has undergone a regular inspection of its farm, facilities, ingredients, and practices by an independent third-party certifier, accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The producer has followed strict NOP regulations and maintained detailed records. Genetically engineered ingredients, synthetic pesticides, animal drugs, sewage sludge, irradiation, and chemical fertilizers are prohibited. Farm animals, soil, and crops have been managed organically. Food can be processed using only approved methods. Ingredients must be on the “allowed” list.
If every one of us pays close attention to the labels on our food – choosing certified organic over “natural” – we can increase demand for organic, sustainable, healthy foods.
Step two? Demand that your local and state legislators pass labeling laws so that all so-called “natural” products move in a “transition-to-organic” direction. Tell your elected officials that you have the right to know what is – and isn’t – in your food.
If we all work together, the U.S. will be well on its way to solving three of the nation’s most pressing problems: deteriorating public health, climate change, and the energy crisis.
Don’t be fooled. Stop buying so-called “natural” products unless you have no other choice. Buy certified “USDA Organic” products today and everyday. Your health and the health of the planet are at stake. And please join the rapidly growing campaign in California and other states to force mandatory labels on GE foods and to make it illegal to label or advertise GE-tainted foods as “natural” or “all natural.”
Ronnie Cummins is the co-founder and National Director of the Organic Consumers Association. He is a contributor to Hopelesss: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.