On January 7, the New York Times covered the news that Campbell Soup would become the first major U.S. food company to come out in support of mandatory GMO labelling. It was the same day that Campbell’s CEO Denise Morrison sent a letter to her employees, saying the policy change came from the company’s focus on its customers, “so they can feel good about the choices they make, for themselves and their loved ones.”
What the Times didn’t mention, however, was the second half of Morrison’s letter. “I want to stress that we’re in no way disputing the science behind GMOs or their safety,” she wrote. “The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence indicates that GMOs are safe and that foods derived from crops using genetically modified seeds are not nutritionally different from other foods.”
“It takes an average of 13 years to get a GMO seed approved by the government for safety,” Morrison added. “Ingredients derived from these crops are in many of our products. We also believe that GMOs and other technologies will play a crucial role in feeding the world.”
Unlike other kinds of food labels, GMO labelling is not done for nutritional or health purposes. It is primarily a marketing statement, focused on consumer perception.
In that way, Campbell isn’t actually breaking new ground. Labelling is increasingly used by food companies to differentiate their products. A&W launched their “Better Beef” campaign in 2013 which promised consumers that all its burgers are made from beef that “doesn’t contain added steroids, hormones, preservatives or additives and is supplied from ranchers who are committed to ethical and sustainable practices.”
In the 2014 annual report for the A&W Revenue Royalties Income Fund, John R. McLernon the fund’s chairman states: “Looking forward, the trustees are confident that A&W Food Services’ strategic initiatives will continue to attract new customer visits, grow same store sales and consequently grow royalty income in the fund. The most significant of these initiatives is the differentiation of A&W with “better ingredients,” including beef with no added hormones or steroids, eggs from hens fed a vegetarian diet without animal by-products, and chicken raised without the use of antibiotics.”
Most recently A&W has added an organic coffee guarantee to the menu. It is strategic marketing such as this that has enabled A&W to grow their sales for 23 straight years. Clearly, Campbell Soups wants in on that kind of windfall.
Growth of organics
Building on consumers’ unease about conventional and “factory farming” practices, such marketing of organic, pesticide-free, non-GMO, and “natural” has made organics the fastest growing segment of the food industry. According to the 2014 Organic Market Overview produced by the USDA Economic Research Service, organic products are now sold in over 20,000 natural food stores and nearly three-quarters of conventional grocery stores, with double-digit growth in consumer demand for organic food.
The USDA ERS Overview notes: “U.S. sales of organic products were an estimated $28.4 billion in 2012 — over four per cent of total food sales — and will reach an estimated $35 billion in 2014, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.”
However, few consumers actually understand what the terms organic and natural mean.
In 2012 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency commissioned EKOS Research Associates Inc. to survey Canadians to determine their understanding of food labelling. Included in the survey were questions about the terms “Organic” and “Natural.”
The final IKOS report, Canadians’ Understanding and Acceptance of Composition and Production Claims states: “When asked, unprompted, to explain their understanding of the term “natural,” respondents provided a number of interpretations, with the plurality (30 per cent) suggesting that a “natural” product is derived from natural ingredients. One in five (20 per cent) feel that natural products are not processed or modified in any way, and one in seven believe that “natural” implies no preservatives (16 per cent), no pesticides or herbicides (14 per cent), or no artificial flavours or colours (13 per cent).”
“These respondents were also asked, unprompted, to list their reasons for purchasing natural foods. The most common reasons identified for purchasing these products are: they contain no artificial flavours or colours (69 per cent), they contain no food additives or preservatives (69 per cent), or they contain exclusively natural ingredients (62 per cent).”
Canadians perception of “organic” was even more interesting. The report states: “Respondents were asked, unprompted, to give their interpretation of the term “organic.” In contrast to the word “natural,” respondents are largely in agreement in their interpretation of the word “organic.” Six in 10 (62 per cent), believe that an organic product is one that contains no pesticides or herbicides.”
These respondents were similarly asked, unprompted, why they purchase organic foods. A clear majority (72 per cent) cited the absence of pesticides and herbicides, and almost the same number pointed to the fact that organic food is free of additives and preservatives, and it includes only natural ingredients.
But organic foods are not pesticide free. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed are buying organic because they believe organic means pesticide free. In fact, in 2014 CBC News investigated pesticide residues on organic fruits and vegetables and, based on CFIA tests obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, 45.8 per cent tested positive for trace levels of pesticides.
Organic producers are also allowed to use a number of non-synthetic and naturally occurring pesticides. Natural pesticides are not necessarily any less toxic than manufactured pesticides, however. A complete list of pesticides and food additives that organic producers can use can be found on the Government of Canada website.
On the American Council on Science and Health website, the council’s Dr. Josh Bloom writes, “The distinction between natural and synthetic pesticides is both artificial and manipulative. As I have said dozens of times, it makes no difference where a chemical comes from — only the properties of the chemical itself.”
Besides a misunderstanding about how organics are produced, consumer perception that organics are nutritionally better and safer is not supported by studies. In a January 2015 web posting, the Dietitians of Canada stated: “There is not enough scientific evidence to say that organic food is more nutritious than non-organic food or that there are any health benefits to eating organic foods. Some foods grown organically may have more nutrients, and some may have the same, or even less, than those grown on non-organic farms.”
Likely the most comprehensive review of organics was done at Stanford University. Researchers analyzed 237 studies of organic versus conventionally produced foods and reported their findings in September 4, 2012 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. The Stanford study found little nutritional or health benefit from eating organic foods.
Studies of this kind make us ask: Is Campbell’s Morrison respecting her consumers, or misleading them?
Print your label
Can you really market your food as organic, natural, non-GMO, pesticide free, free range, grass-fed, hormone-free, steroid-free, cage-free, antibiotic-free, or locally produced, just because you say it is?
In Canada, it turns out, all such labelling terms are voluntary. There is, for instance, no requirement to tell consumers if a product is organic or genetically engineered. But there are standards… sometimes.
According to a Canadian Food Inspection Agency spokesperson, if you are shipping organic products across provincial borders, or if you are using the Canada Organic label on your products, they must be certified, and “these products can only be certified when they meet the requirements of the Canadian Organic Standards.” The Canadian Organic Standards can be found by searching at tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca.
Standards for genetically engineered claims should also be met before a product is labelled as GMO-free. Those criteria can be found at: inspection.gc.ca.
When asked about labelling a product as natural, CFIA responded: “Claims such as “natural” on food labels or advertisements should not convey the impression that “nature” has made some foods nutritionally superior to others. Also, foods or ingredients of foods that have undergone processing that has significantly altered their original physical, chemical or biological state should not be described as “natural.” For more, search for “natural food labelling” at inspection.gc.ca.
According to CFIA, the primary requirement for the use of any voluntary labelling claim is that “the claim must be accurate, truthful and not misleading. Labels must meet the Food and Drugs Act, the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and all applicable regulatory requirements.”
“The verification of voluntary claims used on food labels such as method-of-production claims (pesticide-free, free range, cage-free, no antibiotics, hormone-free and grass-fed) are part of the CFIA’s regular inspection activities. These claims are subject to the Food and Drugs Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, which prohibit statements and claims that are false, misleading, deceptive, or that create an erroneous impression regarding the product. This includes the method of manufacture.”