J Pat Carter / AP

The natural-food industry should get political

The popular organic- and natural-foods sector has been mostly MIA in Washington. That needs to change

October 2, 2015 2:00AM ET

The organic and natural food industry is booming. Last year, sales of organic products topped $39 billion.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that most natural food companies steer clear of political battles that can have a significant effect on their business model.

Here’s how Politico reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich recently described the problem:

There is virtually no ‘good food’ industry lobbying strategy in place, as the vanguards of healthier eating have largely ignored Capitol Hill, leaving the traditional food and beverage powerhouses — which spent more than $36 million last year on lobbying — to push their agenda … The gap between the growth in the market and who’s playing ball in D.C. could be a challenge for the greater food movement and segments of the industry that could benefit from certain federal policy reforms.

In other words, the growing organic and natural food industry cannot keep relying solely on the marketplace for their success.

The conventional food industry has had a decades-long head start in D.C. — and knows far too well how to play the game. The Grocery Manufacturers Association was formed more than a century ago, and in recent years has been leading the (largely successful) opposition to the labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients — a key issue for the organic foods sector.

The pesticide and biotech trade group CropLife America, whose original name was “The Agricultural Insecticide and Fungicide Association,” has been undermining organic agriculture since 1933.

Numerous other junk-food companies and trade groups are filling the void left by the good-food sector. There are notable exceptions to the gap, such as the Organic Trade Association, along with a smattering of companies joining non-profit organizations in the GMO-labeling fight. But more firepower is needed.

For example, the natural food industry could focus on stopping “The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” an ironically named bill that has already passed the House, from moving through the Senate. The legislation would not only prevent states from requiring the labeling of GMO foods, but also mandate a federal definition of the word “natural” — a problem that has plagued the industry for years. Given that the junk-food industry is pushing the bill, it’s likely that such a definition will water down the term and allow, for example, foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled “natural.”

There are other issues in which the organic- and natural-food industry should get engaged. Congress continues to debate improvements to school nutrition guidelines that should be a no-brainer, such as requiring a half-cup of vegetables. The federally subsidized lunch program feeds some 31 million children (PDF) every single day — a huge potential market. While most organic and natural foods are priced too high for penny-pinching schools, the sector could join the fight for higher government-reimbursement rates. Moreover, without the natural-food sector, the only voices being heard are the pizza and the junk-food lobbies

The organic food industry needs to clearly differentiate itself, maintain its political independence and join the good food movement.

Another issue relevant to the natural-food sector is the use of word “healthy” to describe products. For example, the Food and Drug Administration does not allow high-fat foods such as nuts to be called “healthy,” despite scientific evidence to support the claim. Recently, the snack bar company Kind got slapped with a warning letter for using the word. A coalition of companies making foods containing healthy fats could band together to petition the FDA to change this rule. The nut industry alone should be motivated enough to accomplish this.

Finally, a key issue right now is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal recommendations on how to eat that gets updated every five years. Despite being backed by ample science, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report (PDF) — which recommends cutting down on meat while increasing plant-based foods (both for health and environmental reasons) — is currently under aggressive attack by the meat lobby.

The public has weighed in, with more than 29,000 comments submitted. But with few exceptions, the natural-food industry has been silent. That’s why I organized a coalition of plant-based food companies to submit comments in support of the recommendations in May. While other trade groups, such as those representing soy foods, beans and fresh produce, take the more tepid approach of only promoting their members’ foods, ours was the only group willing to stand up to the meat lobby by supporting the “less meat” message. And yet, we need the rest of the industry — including the organic-meat industry — to weigh in as the fight continues.

Just last week, a media firestorm broke out over the latest attack on the committee’s recommendations. This time, the British Medical Journal published a scathing, but unfounded, critique on the committee’s scientific process. Once again, the meat lobby’s message was heard loud and clear, while the committee was playing catch up; the natural-food sector, meanwhile, was silent. On Oct. 7, the House Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing on the dietary-guidelines controversy. This will be a huge opportunity for voices to be heard on a critical issue.

A related challenge the organic- and natural-food industry will have to confront is that of acquisition by conventional food companies. In particular, it will have to come to terms with how such consolidation negatively affects political freedom, not to mention brand loyalty. During the 2012 fight over GMO labeling in California, many consumers were shocked to learn that some of their favorite organic brands were owned by huge conglomerates that were bankrolling the opposition.

In the years since, numerous acquisitions — from Hormel Foods purchasing Applegate Farms, to General Mills buying up Annie’s Homegrown — have sparked discussions and concern over potential fall-out. This is a trend that will continue. As the conventional food industry loses more ground to the natural sector, acquisition is a predictable survival tactic. And there are certainly advantages for better brands to gain access to broader markets and obtain the necessary capital to continue to grow and compete. But not if the result is a merged food industry in which the same large and powerful players continue to call the shots on the wrong side of the issues.

That’s why the organic and natural food industry needs to clearly differentiate itself, maintain its political independence and join the good food movement. 

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of Eat Drink Politics, the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and an attorney with Foscolo and Handel, the food law firm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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