Organic ingredient suppliers talk about the threat of GMO cross contamination and the promise of new categories
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal has become a more common sight on grocery shelves and consumers at virtually all economic levels are demanding more organic choices in the marketplace. Nonetheless, organic growers, processors and distributors are aware that they are facing serious threats to their continued prosperity.
The GMO Threat
The potential for cross-contamination of organic crops from neighboring—or even not neighboring—fields filled with genetically engineered crops remains a critical matter. And no one seems to have an effective answer for correcting the problem.
The issue of cross-contamination from GMO [genetically modified organism] crops is an issue of major concern in the organic community," says Simcha Weinstein, director of marketing for Albert’s Organics of Bridgeport, NJ, which has distribution centers throughout the United States. "There have been cases where non-GMO farmers have lost entire fields. Products that are not labeled as containing GMOs have been tested and shown that they do in fact contain GMOs because of cross-contamination. Currently, there is no legal recourse for a grower who loses product due to this problem."
Amy Nankivil, director of international sales for St. Paul, MN-based Northland Organic Foods Corp., seconds Weinstein’s dismal appraisal. She says, "Cross-contamination of GMO crops into non-GMO fields has become increasingly difficult to control. The first step in producing non-GMO food depends on the seed that is planted, and over the past 12 years, even the most diligent seed producers are struggling to keep the GMO levels at minimum percentage points. In addition, a number of countries that were for many years dedicated to prohibiting the production of GMOs have changed their laws in favor of the biotechnology companies."
A big part of the problem is that large amounts of the GMO product were already in the ground before the Agriculture Department—after a decade of heel-dragging—finally implemented the National Organic Program (NOP). "By 2007, 73% of the corn grown in the United States was genetically modified," reports Megan Thompson, executive director of The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization located in Upland, CA. "Corn pollen is incredibly lightweight and can easily travel for miles, so that is the crop where cross-contamination in fields is of most concern. And because corn is found in so many things (flour, starch, oil, citric acid, vitamins, etc.), this presents a significant challenge for the majority of processed food manufacturers that want a non-GMO product (which includes all organic manufacturers)."
Seed contamination also is worrisome, Thompson continues. "Planting verified non-GMO seeds is absolutely the best way to reduce GMO risk in a crop. This may sound obvious, but a lot of seed being sold, even organic, is at risk for trace levels of GMOs, which multiply every time the seed is grown out. I’ve seen data suggesting that when a corn crop is planted with seed that tests below 0.1% GMO, the finished product is almost always below 0.5% GMO, even with cross-contamination from windborne pollen. To put those numbers in perspective, 0.9% is the European Union’s threshold for GMO contamination (anything above that has to be labeled), and is also the initial action threshold set forth for food products in the Non-GMO Project Standard. So, starting with verified non-GMO seed (seed that has actually been tested) is a really critical component of protecting against GMO contamination in organics."
The soy situation is no better than that of corn. Thompson notes that approximately 91% of the soybeans grown in the United States during 2007 were genetically modified. Soy’s heavier weight tends to cut down on the windborne worries, but, she says, contamination is still possible at the seed level, as well as in processing, transportation and handling. Therefore, testing of soybeans is of the utmost importance.
The goal for any organic cultivator has been to grow in an area that is "as isolated as possible," suggests Alan DeYoung, farm manager for Van Drunen Farms, Momence, IL. But, since corn pollen can travel miles through the air, this is hardly easy to accomplish.
One approach that sometimes is proposed is that organic growers maintain a buffer zone on the periphery of their property, ostensibly to minimize GMO creep from conventional fields into their area. Nevertheless, a buffer area cannot keep out the wind, or insects that transfer pollen, or water that may run across many fields.
In any event, says Weinstein, the notion that it is the organic grower’s responsibility to sacrifice growing area—thus lessening the potential value of his or her crop—is inherently unfair. He urges "that we reverse the financial burden of this issue and place it on the grower using GMOs. If an organic or non-GMO grower loses crops because of cross-contamination from a neighboring farm then the grower using GMOs should cover the contaminated grower’s losses. This seems like the fairest policy and one that would hopefully cut back on the use of GMOs."
If buffer areas will not work, then the only remaining solution is frequent, diligent testing at every step along the way. Del Thacker, chief operating officer of Louisville, KY-based Whole Alternatives, a division of Caudill Seed, says that his firm, a supplier and co-packer that specializes in organic and natural private label food items, begins its search for assurance against cross-contamination by carefully selecting the growers it will work with.
He says, "It is imperative that these growers and farmers be certified organic and that they follow the NOP rules. Whole Alternatives requires an organic certificate with every load that is purchased. We try to select farmers that are organic only and are high-acreage producers. It is my belief, that future farmers will be required to have GMO risk management plans with avoidance strategies that are area specific."
Thacker continues, "We have required some of our farmers to use beneficial insects in their grain silos and pre-shipment loads. We inspect every shipment entering our climate-controlled warehouse to ensure an insect-free environment. We monitor the warehouse and packing facility with the use of pheromone traps and pheromone blockers. In the unlikely event of a stored pest problem, we have CO2 chambers to isolate and control any issues. Our goal is to use a holistic approach to control insect activity."
Kate Leavitt, director of international sales for SunOpta Grains and Foods Group, of Brampton, Ontario, Canada, tells a similar story. "We test all seed stock to verify non-GMO integrity of originating material prior to entering the grain-handling facility for initial cleaning and processing," she says. In addition, she explains that farmers are expected to use adequate buffer zones and are monitored to make sure they clean all equipment thoroughly to avoid any cross-contamination with GMOs in all stages of their operation, including seeding, harvesting, storing and transporting.
RIBUS, Inc., in St. Louis, MO, is perhaps the only source for this story that does not perceive cross-contamination from GMO crops as a major problem it expects to confront. "Rice has a closed seed head, so it is unlikely that cross contamination could occur," says Steve Peirce, the firm’s president. Still, he adds, "As a precaution, all raw rice materials are tested for GMOs. A third-party lab report can be provided that states the specific lot of materials showed no GMO presence, to a detectible level."
At Richvale, CA-based Lundberg Family Farms, says Grant Lundberg, CEO, the company has internal systems in place to help ensure product purity. Nevertheless, it also looks outward to find additional help. "We are founding members of the Non-GMO Project, which was formed to create a standardized definition of non-GMO and a third-party verification program to assess product compliance with this standard," Lundberg says. "The Project’s Product Verification Program is entirely voluntary, and participants are companies that see the value of offering their customers a verified non-GMO choice. Many of the individuals and businesses leading the way with the Project are the same ones responsible for creating the original organic standards."
This is just one example of how some of the sources for this article are attempting to build collaboration among the various players in the organic marketplace (i.e., growers, processors, packers, distributors, retailers and consumers).
Another instance of inter-level cooperation is practiced by NewOrganics of Greenacres, FL, a company that describes its role as "connecting markets and adding value to the entire supply chain." According to Esther Meima, marketing manager, "We are in the business of ensuring availability of supply for our customers. We work to bring market participants together—helping our growers and processors reach new markets and expand their operations while developing a long-term business relationship."
One aspect of these efforts is NewOrganics’ maintenance of a quality assurance department that has strong experience in organic certification. Meima says, "Our team can help growers with their certification paperwork, and can offer assistance in specialized organic certifications (such as EU for Europe or JAS for Japan). This could open up additional markets for them."
At Albert’s Organics, says Weinstein, two major efforts are aimed at promoting collaboration—the Retail Marketing Program and the Local Grower Program. Elements of the Retail Marketing Program include signage and point-of-sale materials for in-store use, as well as an Organic Produce College, which can be accessed through the company’s Web site, www.albertsorganics.com. This program has been a successful training tool in organic produce departments throughout the country. In addition, two weekly electronic newsletters provide educational information about the organic marketplace as well as offer tips on merchandising and marketing strategies.
Meanwhile, says Weinstein, the Local Grower Program "creates opportunities for local and regional growers that are near to our seven distribution centers throughout the country. During the growing season, we help retailers promote these products through a program that includes both retail signage promoting the individual growers as well as information about organic farming."
For RIBUS, collaboration means working with selected rice mills to make certain that all parties know what are its product needs and standards. "Purchasing the proper material is the first step toward obtaining finished product quality," says Peirce.
Grower Incentive Programs are the ticket at SunOpta. Leavitt and her colleague Nate Morr, director of social and environmental sustainability, say the goal of these programs is to increase non-GMO crop production and convert current acreage to organic production: "We focus on educating the growers and empowering them to improve their yield, and their financial return, while caring for the Earth long-term. SunOpta helps develop new market outlets and pays premiums to ensure financial success for the grower during their transition to organic. Our Grower Incentive Program incorporates a holistic approach, supporting the growers on many levels, including environmental stewardship, personal health and wellness, business integrity, and exceptional quality and improvement."
Collaborative efforts at Van Drunen Farms, which grows around 500 acres of its own organic herbs and supplies an extensive line of organic dehydrated, whole-food fruits, vegetables and herbs, including individually quick frozen (IQF) herbs, revolve around soil-building techniques and transitioning new farm land into NOP compliance. DeYoung says, "The key to a nutritious organic product starts with the soil." To this end, the company participates as a farmer adviser along with other organic farmers on an organic research committee at the University of Illinois.
Asked to identify sectors of the organic market that are ripe for development and growth, several sources zeroed in on food for kids. Chad Hagen, vice president of sales and marketing of consumer products for the SunOpta Fruit Group, says baby food and body care are presently "underrepresented product categories that could become important organic contributors in the next two or three years." In the baby food area, Hagen also includes "toddler and infant food lines for after-baby food."
On a similar note, Northland’s Nankivil suggests that while virtually all organic categories will improve in the foreseeable future, she looks for particularly strong performances in the infant and children’s categories. "The series of recent food scares will certainly contribute," she notes, leaving unspoken the truism that people are protective of their youngsters’ well-being even when being somewhat cavalier about their own safety.
Besides baby foods, other categories also strike the suppliers as being promising areas of sales growth. Weinstein cites the increasing importance of items that are certified "fair trade." In addition, he notes the expansion of ethnic food items as the tastes of natural/organic consumers become more sophisticated. "The emergence of Greek-style yogurt in the yogurt category is evidence of this important trend," he says. And, he also sees consumer attention being drawn to organic items that are positioned as "artisan" or "handcrafted" products. Many cheeses fit into this slot. Finally, he says, "With concerns for environmental transportation impacts and a desire to support local companies, the ‘Buy Local’ movement is opening doors to smaller organic companies within particular regions."
At Van Drunen Farms, marketing manager Alan McGuirt believes that snacks are where it’s at. He says, "There are so many unique, great-tasting, natural and even healthy products coming on the scene. Dried fruit and vegetable products offer the sweet or salty taste, and can even give the crunch that snackers crave. Even with more attention being given to obesity and health-related issues these days, people still do not want to give up their snacking. These new organic snacks can replace bad snacking and give consumers new products to explore."
Getting a bit more specific, Peirce of RIBUS cites rice-based, gluten-free organic snacks as the hope of the future. "Extrusion companies can use rice flour to create a crunchy, puffed snack, coated with flavors and seasonings that could be great for a school lunch program. They would be low in fat, allergen-free, and offer good texture and great flavor," he says.
Rice is also on the menu for Lundberg, whose company has been supplying organic, sustainably grown rice products since 1937. "The focus on gluten-free and the new rice health claim are helping this become an exciting category," he says. Pierce is particularly excited about his company’s new Organic Heat and Eat Rice Bowls, which he claims is not only nutritious, but also quick, convenient and delicious.
Meanwhile, Thacker at Whole Alternatives looks for the strongest growth to come from the organic meal replacement and side dish categories and expects "continued, sustained growth" in organic/natural canned soup, organic confectionary and organic salty snacks. Like the other sources contributing to this story, he asserts, "We are poised and ready for these opportunities." WF
Alan Richman, former editor/associate publisher of WholeFoods Magazine, is a New Jersey-based freelance writer specializing in coverage of the natural products industry.