In an August 5 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, physician and molecular biologist Henry I. Miller made claims about how the organic food industry is lying to consumers. Since its publication, the media has been questioning the food industry’s integrity. This might be why FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently tweeted about his plans to further define packaging terms such as “organic” and “antibiotic-free” in the consumer space.
In his article, Miller, who is the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, wrote that the FDA gives a “complete pass” to the organic industry while they promote “blatantly false and deceptive advertising claims.” Miller used Whole Foods as an example of a company that uses such claims; he pointed out their website states that their organic foods are grown “without toxic or persistent pesticides.”
“In fact, organic farmers rely on synthetic and natural pesticides to grow their crops, just as conventional farmers do, and organic products can contain numerous synthetic as well as natural chemicals,” Miller wrote.
In response, Gottlieb tweeted that the FDA and the USDA “have distinct roles when it comes to the oversight of organic foods” with the USDA “charged with regulating the term ‘organic’ and FDA in charge of the ‘general food labeling compliance and safety issues.’”
Gottlieb continued to say that both organizations “help ensure the safety of goods people eat, including organic foods, while also providing consumers access to factual information in a product’s label about how the food was produced.”
However, Miller pointed out some factual information to support his claims. In his article, he mentioned how Tropicana “gets away with” labeling their orange juice products as non-GMO and Hunt’s labels their crushed tomato products as non-GMO while there are no genetically modified varieties of tomatoes and oranges on the market.
“Absence claims about GMOs are never enforced: I was unable to find a single warning letter or other enforcement action against deceptive ‘non-GMO’ labeling,” Miller wrote.
Although the Commissioner has not yet directly discussed any of Miller’s points, Laura Batcha, the chief of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) commented on Miller’s piece. In a letter to the editor, she wrote about how Miller’s article reflects his deep bias against the organic industry.
“When we choose products with the USDA Organic label, we are just not choosing a product that is guaranteed not to contain any GMOs,” said Batcha, who is OTA’s CEO and executive director. “We are choosing a product that has been raised and produced by the most highly regulated and the 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.”
However, Miller is not the only one who is publicly speaking against the USDA and FDA’s food labeling policies. In an opinion article in The Hill, attorney Dean McGrath Jr, founder of Washington’s McGrath & Associates, expressed his dissatisfaction with the FDA.
“While the laws against phony food claims and misleading statements are still enforced in some areas, the FDA and FTC now treat one segment of the food and agriculture industry as if the laws do not apply,” McGrath wrote. “That’s the $47 billion and growing organic food industry, where misleading health claims about conventional agriculture are almost universal – especially claims against GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, mostly grains.”
McGrath also mentions the Non-GMO Project’s certified label that is on more than 50 thousand products.
“The Project – much of whose board is drawn from the organic industry – states on its website that its purpose is to help consumers avoid ‘high risk’ products containing GMO ‘contamination.’ To that end, the Project provides, for a hefty price, testing and certification – none of which is government verified — and the right to stick their butterfly on your package,” he wrote.
“The law is clear that food claims made on websites come under FDA’s labeling guidelines. It is also clear that the assertions the project makes on its website should be captured under FTC’s equally strict laws against misleading advertising.”
These complaints come after the FDA and USDA announced a mandatory labeling scheme that identifies products with GMO ingredients. The FDA is also working to implement a new nutrition facts label in the food space that features information on added sugars, the number of servings in a container and a larger calorie panel. These changes are a response to consumer demand transparency in the food space.
However, allegations of poor regulatory oversight of the organic foods industry do not serve the FDA’s reputation. This might be why organizations such as The Real Organic Project are coming up with new labels to identify products that fall into their guidelines for the term organic.
Under the watchful eye of the media, the food industry is being put in a position to provide transparency or risk being called out. However, in this case, it seems that there needs to be more evidence to back up both sides of this argument of whether or not the organic food industry is being properly regulated.