Organic cereals like Kashi and Cascadian Farm at a market in Berkeley, Calif. Those brands, and many like them, are owned by large food corporations.
By STEPHANIE STROM
September 13, 2012
Giant bioengineering companies like Monsanto and DuPont are spending millions of dollars to fight a California ballot initiative aimed at requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. That surprises no one, least of all the proponents of the law, which if approved by voters would become the first of its kind in the nation.
A sign at a Whole Foods store endorses a ballot measure in California, known as Proposition 37, to put labels on genetically modified food.
But the companies behind some of the biggest organic brands in the country — Kashi, Cascadian Farm, Horizon Organic — also have joined the antilabeling effort, adding millions of dollars to defeat the initiative, known as Proposition 37.
Their opposition stands in sharp contrast to smaller, independent organic companies, which generally favor labeling products that contain genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.’s. And it has raised a consumer reaction on social media that has led some of the organic brands to try to distance themselves from their corporate parents.
“We want to be clear that Kashi has not made any contributions to oppose G.M.O. labeling,” the brand said in a statement issued late last month after its Facebook page was inundated with comments from consumers saying they would no longer buy its products because its corporate owner, the Kellogg Company, has put more than $600,000 into fighting the ballot initiative.
But as recently as last week, consumers were still peppering the sites of Horizon, owned by Dean Foods; the J. M. Smucker Company, which has a number of organic products, and Kashi with expressions of betrayal and disappointment. “It is unconscionable for you to be funding the effort to defeat Proposition 37,” one post said.
“Consumers aren’t always aware that their favorite organic brands are in fact owned by big multinationals, and now they’re finding out that the premium they’ve paid to buy these organic products is being spent to fight against something they believe in passionately,” said Mark Kastel, a co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog and farm policy group that has been tracking corporate contributions in the ballot fight. “They feel like they’ve been had.”
The uproar highlights the difference between large organic brands that have driven the double-digit growth of the organic market and the smaller, independent businesses and farms that most shoppers envision when they buy an organic peach or shampoo — companies like Nature’s Path, one of Kashi’s largest competitors.
Although certified organic products are prohibited by law from containing genetically engineered ingredients, organic companies generally favor the labeling law, contending that consumers have a right to know what is in the products they buy. What is left unsaid is that it may also be a marketing advantage for organic companies, distinguishing them from conventional food producers.
The parent companies, among them Kellogg, General Mills, Dean Foods, Smucker’s and Coca-Cola, declined to talk about their opposition to the labeling initiative, which is on the November ballot, referring questions to Kathy Fairbanks, the spokeswoman for the No on 37 campaign.
Last week, the organization released a study it had commissioned that estimated the initiative would add $1.2 billion in costs for California farmers and food producers. Ms. Fairbanks said that the higher costs could add as much as $350 to $400 to an average family’s grocery bill.
The European Union has required such biotech labeling since 1997, and companies by and large have formulated their products so that they do not contain any genetically engineered ingredients and thus do not need labeling. Also, David Byrne, the former European commissioner for health and consumer protection, has said that there was no impact on the cost of products.
Americans, however, are becoming much more aware of the role that food plays in their health and well-being, and consequently want much more information about what they eat, including whether it contains genetically engineered ingredients as well as salt and trans fats. So far, opponents of Proposition 37 have committed roughly $25 million to defeat it, with the largest contributions coming from Monsanto ($4.2 million) and DuPont ($4 million), which have made big investments in genetically engineered crops.
Several food companies are not far behind. PepsiCo, Nestlé, ConAgra Foods and Coca-Cola, which owns the Odwalla and Honest Tea brands, have each put more than $1 million in the fight, while General Mills, which owns organic stalwarts like Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm as well as popular upstarts like Lärabar and Food Should Taste Good, has spent more than $900,000.
“We believe labeling regulations should be set at the national level, not state by state,” General Mills said in a statement on its Web site.
Supporters of the measure thus far have mustered only $3.5 million from donors like Organic Valley, which has given $50,000, and Clif Bar and Amy’s Kitchen, which each have put in $100,000.
On Tuesday, Whole Foods, the retail mecca of the organic and natural foods movement, said it supported the California proposal, though with some reservations over the details — and without putting any money into the effort in accordance with its policy, a spokeswoman said.
Nature’s Path, an independent business, has put more than $600,000 into supporting the ballot initiative — even though it is a Canadian company. Some 70 percent of its sales and most of its production take place in the United States, said Arran Stephens, president of the company, but that is not why it is one of the biggest supporters of Proposition 37.
“We get to know what the salt content of our food is and the nutritional content, and producers have to state whether there are preservatives in it,” Mr. Stephens said. “But in the case of genetically modified organisms and whether they are in a product or not, we don’t know.”
Ronnie Cummins, founder and national director of the Organic Consumers Association, which represents some 850,000 members, said he expected the food and biotech companies that oppose the measure to spend roughly twice what they have already contributed by the time of the Nov. 6 election.
Nonetheless, Mr. Cummins said he expected it to pass. In a poll of 800 likely California voters in July by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University, 64.9 percent said they were inclined to vote in favor of Proposition 37 based on their knowledge at that time.
“The more ads they put out, the more they remind people that they’re already eating foods with G.M.O. ingredients in them,” he said.
Brand experts say the companies also risk tarnishing the very brands that they have worked so hard to keep separate from their conventional businesses, if at all possible keeping their corporate ownership to microscopic print buried somewhere on a Web site.
The Organic Trade Association supports labeling food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients even though two of its board members are from companies — Dean Foods and Smucker’s — that oppose the California ballot measure.
Christine Bushway, the association’s executive director, said the issue was fairly clear-cut for the organization, since genetically modified organisms are banned from organic foods. “Our question has always been, if companies don’t feel that G.M.O.’s are in any way an issue for consumers, what is the concern about putting them on the label?” Ms. Bushway said.
She said that as a trade association, the organization did not typically put money into campaigns.
Just Label It, an organization that has fought for genetically engineered labeling nationally since 2011, came out in support of the ballot measure on Wednesday — but it also will not put money into the fight. Gary Hirshberg, the campaign’s chairman and also chairman of Stonyfield Farm, the organic dairy brand now 85 percent owned by Groupe Danone, said his organization had already used much of its resources by the time the California initiative got under way.
“To be candid with you, I understand exactly what they’re trying to accomplish, and I’m supportive of their goal, but I don’t believe that in the long run we can solve a problem like this on a state-by-state level,” Mr. Hirshberg said. “Even if California succeeds, and we hope it does, there is still a national policy question before us.”
Others say that the reason the food and biotech companies are investing heavily to fight the ballot measure in California is because that market is so large that it would effectively cause them to adopt labeling or reformulate their products nationally. “That’s why they are fighting this so hard,” Mr. Kastel said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 15, 2012
An article on Friday about a food-labeling referendum in California that is putting some organic food brands at odds with their corporate parents misidentified the owner of the yogurt brand Stonyfield Farm. It is majority-owned by Groupe Danone, not by Dannon. (The Dannon Company is a subsidiary of Groupe Danone.)