False and misleading advertising by the organic agriculture and food industries is out of control and sowing consumer fear, confusion and mistrust.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb acknowledged as much responding within days to my August 6 Wall Street Journal editorial exposing flagrant organic industry lies and deceptive labeling practices. He tweeted that the FDA would soon "put out more detailed information about what different terms mean on food packaging to help consumers best use claims like organic, antibiotic free, etc."
That's great rhetoric, because accurate information and transparency are important to help American consumers make informed food choices and are necessary for free markets to work. But the time for hollow promises and dithering by regulators is long past. What we need is aggressive enforcement of existing consumer-protection laws now.
To be clear — and Dr. Gottlieb knows this — false and misleading organic labeling isn't new or a case of first impression for the FDA. As the 2014 Academic Review's Organic Marketing Report clearly shows, it's been happening for a long time. It is deception by design and permeates every aspect of organic marketing. That's what you need to do when you're huckstering a high-priced, inferior product
The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act "requires that labels on packaged food products in interstate commerce not be false or misleading in any way," and since 1992, FDA has been developing policies that allow it to combat the kind of false and misleading claims made by the organic industry.
The agency's 2015 labeling guidance (revised in 2018) states that a "GMO-Free" label is false and misleading if "it suggests or implies that a food or ingredient is safer, more nutritious, or otherwise has different attributes than other comparable foods because the food was not genetically engineered."
Information on the website of the food giant Nestlé is a textbook case. The statement, "Ingredients derived from GMOs (genetically modified organisms) differ because the process involves scientists selecting a desirable genetic trait and placing it in a different plant species," is simply wrong.
Sometimes a gene is simply deleted; but more to the point, since the 1930s, plant breeders have performed "wide cross" hybridizations, in which genes are moved from one species or genus to another, giving rise to plant varieties that cannot and do not exist in nature. Commercial crops derived from wide crosses include common varieties of tomato, potato, oat, rice, wheat, corn, pumpkin and others.
Relying on decades of science and regulatory oversight, the FDA (along with USDA and the EPA) has determined repeatedly that the use of the newest, most precise and predictable techniques for genetic modification does not per se confer any unique or incremental risk.
Just this year, the FDA yet again reaffirmed that it "is not aware of any scientific information showing that foods derived from genetically engineered plants... differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way."
Organic agriculture strictly prohibits organisms modified with molecular genetic engineering techniques. Thus, labels and associated websites or other materials that overtly state, or even imply, that an "organic" food is safer than a comparable, conventional or food or simply that foods made with molecular genetic engineering techniques are somehow riskier violates both the spirit and the letter of the law.
But implying risk and leveraging consumer fears for profit is what the organic marketing is all about. It's the reason, for example, that the Non-GMO Project's "GMO-Free" label scheme works. It's clear from their website. And, by the way, the Non-GMO project doesn't even pretend that its aim is anything but a ploy to build organic market share by trashing the competition.
The Project's Executive Director, Megan Westlake, told the Wall Street Journal unabashedly that the goal was to "shrink the market for existing GMO ingredients and prevent new commercial biotech crops" — in spite of the fact that biotech crops often increase yields, conserve water, have new consumer-friendly traits and are warmly embraced by farmers.
The Non-GMO project and its verification services have charged brands over a hundred million dollars in total to put their misleading, meaningless, "GMO-Free" labels on more than 50,000 foods and consumer products — including items like pasta, salt, orange juice and cat litter where no GMO equivalents even exist. And big grocery retailers like Whole Foods are happily participating in and profiting from the deception.
The credibility problem, however, is larger than the Non-GMO Project profiting from unwarranted GMO fears. Deception is pervasive and at the core of organic marketing in general.
Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association, claims — presumably with a straight face — that organic products are "raised and produced by the most highly regulated and most transparent sector of our food and agricultural system. No other agricultural system operates under the comprehensive and rigorous set of federal regulations and standards by which organic farmers choose willingly to abide."
That assertion is laughable. Organic labels are the Wild West of food advertising.
Last December, a Washington Post article once again showed how getting an "organic" designation is essentially a voluntary and largely unregulated paper process — in sharp contrast to the government's excessive, redundant and multi-agency approval process for genetically engineered plants. Certifying products as "organic" is a service sold by third-parties and government oversight is minimal. Actual eyes-on inspection of organic farms or products is rare.
As one farmer and leading organic advocate told CNBC, "We have broad discretion about whether we test finished products, whether we test soil or plant tissue."
And it's not just gaps in domestic certification that are concerning. Oversight, as another Washington Post exposé revealed, is so weak that grains and soybeans grown with conventional practices in Eastern Europe and China are magically transformed into "organic" during importation and sold here to organophiles at a significant markup.
What is critical for consumers to understand is that in spite of bearing an "organic" label, a sizable proportion of allegedly "organic" grains and soybeans imported to and sold in this country are simply counterfeit. When USDA sampled thousands of samples of supposedly "organic" produce from store shelves, it found prohibited pesticide residues on 43 percent.
The rules are so loose and the profits so alluring that major conventual food and agriculture companies like Cargill, Perdue Farms, and General Mills have created "organic" or "GMO-Free" products to get a piece of the $47 billion per year organic market.
There is no science or rationality in the organic industry. At best, it's a joke and, at worst, it represents opportunistic, kleptocratic, widespread deception.
Fortunately, the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission have the power right now to protect consumers. What are they waiting for?
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.