Opinion: Save your budget from organic food hypocrisy

Hank Campbell

Food labels these days are like the Wild West of dishonest advertising. Plant juice can be called milk, steak can be marketed as gluten-free and soybeans can be called meat. It may only be a matter of time until kosher-labeled pork and vegan chicken is on shelves. All of those have been made possible because our regulatory system chose not to enforce its marketing rules when organic food began to make health claims.

Organic food is widely marketed as the healthier, pesticide-free alternative to conventional options. Nonprofit organizations — like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and its "Dirty Dozen" list — fundraise off communicating that only organic food is clean and without toxic substances that consumers should fear.

Package labels are a source of false distinction, Campbell writes.

What they don’t tell you is that the conventional pesticides detected in sampling by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are present in such minuscule amounts that it would be impossible for anyone to eat enough to cause any harm to health. That fact doesn’t matter to the EWG because the purpose of its list is not to educate, it’s to increase the market share for organic food. The list is a gimmick that produces a reliable press event and scary headlines about dangerous food. 

This cynical ploy has a tragic side effect. Low-income shoppers who can’t afford to buy organic food avoid fruits and vegetables altogether out of the belief that they will be harmed. Yet the dirty little secret is that organic food is no healthier than its conventional counterpart. Organic food also uses pesticides — USDA just doesn’t test for them. 

Package labels are another source of false distinctions. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been working to bring clarity to the term “natural,” recognizing that the term is virtually meaningless — a marketing tool meant to woo wavering customers who have thousands more products to choose from than in the past. Addressing consumer confusion is a step in the right direction for the agency. It makes all the more puzzling its continued inaction on countless violations of its industry guidance on biotech labeling. 

A recent study found nearly half of consumers avoid GMO-labeled foods, Campbell writes.

Organic food can use USDA’s organic seal to indicate compliance with a certain set of standards its hand-picked panel of lobbyists and farmers chose for themselves, which includes not producing food through modern genetic engineering but allowing older genetic engineering like mutagenesis. However, for many foods using the Non-GMO Project’s butterfly label, no genetically modified organism version of their products even exists. This marketing symbol is used “to shrink the market for existing GMO ingredients and prevent new commercial biotech crops,” reports the Wall Street Journal. Even manufacturers of food that could never be produced through genetic engineering feel marketing pressure to advertise the fact. 

This is explicitly against FDA policy and guidance — if it would only enforce its own rules.

In the absence of FDA protecting the public from spurious food claims, states are taking action, which may bring a patchwork of regulations across the nation. Louisiana and six other states have signed a truth in labeling law for food. No more vegan bacon, broccoli rice or other deceptive marketing practices are allowed.

FDA needs to act because the labels are having their intended effect. A recent study found nearly half of consumers avoid GMO-labeled foods. So why doesn’t the agency tell violators to cut it out?

In a word, fear. The agency worries that by sticking up for the facts about the safety of genetic engineering, it will look like “a campaign against non-GMO labels,” a senior policy analyst for FDA said at a recent panel on reviewing and updating the U.S. agricultural biotechnology regulatory review process. She also theorized, “If FDA had to go after every single one of those containers of salt and other similar types of products, we would probably be doing nothing else.”

This is the wrong conclusion. FDA needs to announce that it’s going to give food manufacturers a deadline to get into compliance (including dropping the Non-GMO Project label) and then start sending warning letters to remaining users of misleading labels. It already has the authority and ability to enforce the truth. All that remains is the will to do it.

Hank Campbell is founder of Science 2.0.