Naked Juice, Silk: Kids who disagree with parent company on GMOs

The Gunther Report

Naked Juice, Silk: Kids who disagree with parent company on GMOs

Naked Juice says it doesn’t use ingredients produced using biotechnology as a matter of principle.

Silk, the company that put soymilk on supermarket shelves, says:

We’re proud to participate in the a nonprofit, multi-stakeholder collaboration committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.

Cascadian Farm (“We were organic before organic was a trend”)  assures consumers that “you can know when you see the 'certified organic' USDA seal on the front of our package that GMO crops have not been used.”

You’ll hear much the same from Kashi (“seven of our foods are now officially Non-GMO Project Verified") and Honest Tea, which says:

Honest Tea doesn’t use any Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOS) and supports the idea that more transparent labeling will help consumers make clear choices.

The thing is, each of these upstart brands, which tout their commitment to natural or organic product, and to transparency, is owned by a big food conglomerate that opposes GMO labeling.

Think of it this way: Naked Juice (PepsiCo.), Silk (Dean Foods), Cascadian Farm (General Mills), Kashi (Kellogg) and Honest Tea (Coca-Cola) are like kids who don’t agree with their parents.

Photo of orange and onion provided by Inga Nielsen via Shutterstock

These, though, are family arguments with big consequences for food shoppers. Big food and agriculture companies funding a campaign which has raised more than $23 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would mandate clear labeling of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients on food packages. PepsiCo, for example, has donated $1.7 million to defeat Prop. 37, while Coca-Cola has spent more than $1.1 million. Kellogg ($612,000), General Mills ($520,000) and Dean Foods ($253,000) are big donors, too. Biotech companies Monsanto and DuPont have given even more — $4 million apiece — according to data compiled by public TV station KCET.

Mark Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisc.-based advocacy group, said that consumers who purchase natural and organic food should be aware that they are supporting big food companies that want to deny them the right to know about GMOs in their food. He’s launched a petition drive asking the big food companies to back labeling and published a graphic showing where food companies stand.

In a press release, Kastel wrote:

We welcome corporate involvement in the organic food industry, but only when the parent company subscribes to the values that the organic food movement is based on. We have a problem with the duplicity of corporations that hide under a ‘holier than thou’ marketing brand and then undermine the very values of the organic movement. [emphasis added]

I’m not sure that I agree that there’s anything nefarious about these contributions. The big food companies argue that the GMO labels are unnecessary, and in any event that labeling shouldn’t be decided by individual states. Consumers who want to avoid GMOs can buy organic products because the national organic standards prohibit GMOs.

Having said that, there’s no doubt that the political power of the organic movement has been diminished as upstart, mission-driven brands have been gobbled up by big companies like Coca-Cola and General Mills that have their own political agendas.

What’s more, the fact that so many organic and natural brands have become swallowed by Big Food means that most of the money flowing into the Prop. 37 campaign is aimed at defeating the initiative. About $3 million has been raised to support the labeling campaign, much of it from independent organic brands such as Nature's Path, Dr. Bronner’s, Nutiva and the Lundberg rice company.

The California vote will be an important test of consumer sentiment about genetically-engineered crops. GE corn and soy are widely grown, and they find their way into many of the packaged goods on grocery shelves. They’re safe to eat, most scientists agree (just as most scientists agree that man-made climate change is a threat), although their environmental impact is a matter of considerable debate.

And, while companies would still be free to use GMO ingredients, a labeling mandate in a big state like California could, in effect, bring about national labeling because of the costs and logistical challenges of producing different packages for different places.

Interestingly, Gary Hirschberg of Stonyfield Farm has led a national petition drive called Just Label It. It's aimed at persuading the FDA to require transparency around GMOs in food. Other firms that support Just Label It include Honest Tea and Annie’s Inc.

By email, Seth Goldman, Honest Tea’s co-founder and TeaEO, told me:

With a name like Honest Tea, we are committed to transparency in our ingredients, in our products, and in the way we do business. Since 1999, when we launched the world’s first organic bottled tea, we’ve used labeling that includes clear, accurate information consumers want to know…All of our products carry the USDA Organic seal, as well as the “No GMOs” logo.

Honest Tea, an operating unit of The Coca-Cola Company, believes all food labeling requirements should be established by the federal government. We do not support state by state regulation of food labels, which places an unrealistic burden on the food and beverage industry.

But The Cornucopia Institute’s Mark Kastel argues that national efforts like the Just Label It campaign are not nearly as likely to succeed as the citizen-led Prop. 37:

I think that supporting the Just Label It Campaign, while you sit on the sidelines during the battle royale in California is disingenuous. The Just Label It Campaign is a top-down operation promulgated by Gary Hirschberg and some other corporate executives…Although there’s nothing wrong with what it is advocating, thus far, they have been wholly ineffective.

There hasn’t been one tangible particle of hope in trying to persuade the FDA of anything in terms of regulating or labeling. This is true under the current administration and every other Democratic and Republican administration since the commercialization of GMO crops. The biotechnology and agribusiness industries, with their investments in federal campaigns and Washington lobbyists, are just too powerful. It does not matter what the polling says citizens want.

But in California, citizens do have power -- at the ballot box. And polling shows that this is winnable. And some of these corporate executives can thump their chests all they want proclaiming their adamant rejection of GMOs, and their support for labeling, but if they sit this one out we are going to make sure that people know it.