Guest Blog By Steven Hoffman

 From Pepsi to Panera, more than a dozen major food brands and restaurant chains have announced in the past year that they are getting rid of controversial additives, artificial colorings and ingredients, antibiotics, and GMOs, or adding organic products to their mix.

Boulder, CO (May 18, 2015) – Talk about a domino effect. One after another, from Pepsi to Panera, over a dozen major food brands and restaurant chains this past year have announced they are removing artificial colors, flavorings and preservatives, GMOs, antibiotics, and other ingredients deemed unhealthful by an increasingly discerning public from their products.

Driven by increased demand from Millennials for cleaner, healthier products, along with growing sales of natural and organic products across a broad spectrum of the US population – not to mention constant pressure by consumer advocacy groups and high-profile food activists – iconic food brands are dumping the junk and striving for a more health-oriented image.

One sign: people just aren’t drinking soda and eating junk food burgers as much as they used to. With fizzy soda sales on a long-term decline and 63% of Americans telling a Gallup survey last year that they are actively avoiding traditional soda drinks, “we’re operating in a very challenging environment,” Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent told analysts in a conference call in late April, reported the Washington Times.

For the quarter ending April 3, 2015, Coca-Cola reported a profit of $1.56 billion, or 35 cents a share, down 3.8% from the previous year. Global sales increased a modest 1%, the first growth in quarterly revenue in more than two years, reported the Washington Times.

After emerging rival Chipotle Mexican Grill – which announced recently that its menu is now non-GMO – reported that comparable-store sales were up 10.4% during the first quarter of 2015, McDonald’s reported a 2.6% decline in same-store sales in the company’s 14,000 U.S. locations during the quarter. Additionally revenue for McDonald’s for the quarter dropped 12% from $6.7 billion the previous year to just under $6 billion.

So, with mounting pressure from social media, consumer organizations, online petitions, and high-profile activists including GMO Inside, Vani Hari of Food Babe, Robyn O’Brien of Allergy Kids and others, combined with declining sales and profits for traditional junk foods, longstanding brands are retooling their recipes. Whether of their own volition, as in the case of Chipotle, or under pressure, recent examples of companies getting on board the clean label bandwagon include the following.

Chipotle says Adios to GMOs

Making good on a two-year promise, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced in late April 2015 that it had removed all ingredients made with genetically modified organisms from its menu. The company’s corn and flour tortillas were among the hardest items to change, but now they’re non-GMO, thanks to Chipotle’s collaboration with suppliers to plant non-GMO corn varieties, reported NPR. GMO soybean oil in the chips and taco shells was replaced with non-GMO sunflower oil. However, Chipotle still uses meat from animals that may be fed on GMO corn or soybeans, admits CEO Steve Ells, though the company wants to change that, but it may take several years, he said.

Panera Drops Long List of Artificial Ingredients

Artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavor enhancers, and 150 other artificial ingredients are being nixed from Panera’s menu by the end of 2016, the restaurant chain announced in May 2015. Panera uses more than 450 ingredients to prepare its food in nearly 1,900 locations across the US. In a move to protect its sales and remove one-third of its ingredients, the company created a “No No List” based on research and standards developed by Johns Hopkins, the Environmental Working Group, the Natural Resources Defense Council and various European governments, reported the New York Times. Panera said it worked with both its suppliers and their suppliers, who themselves were not always certain whether their products contained the ingredients on Panera’s list.

Kraft Mac & Cheese Goes Au Natural

Moms across the country breathed a collective sigh of relief when Kraft Foods, after an onslaught by bloggers and food activists, announced in April 2015 that it would remove artificial colors and preservatives in the U.S. version of its iconic Macaroni & Cheese by January 2016. Kraft says it will replace synthetic colors — including Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 — with naturally derived colors such as paprika, annatto and turmeric – the way it’s been formulated in Europe for years.

PepsiCo Removes Aspartame from Diet Pepsi; Adds Sucralose Instead

PepsiCo announced it is removing aspartame, first sold under the brand name NutraSweet, from Diet Pepsi by August 2015 in response to customer feedback, and replacing it with sucralose, another artificial sweetener known as Splenda. Aspartame is “literally the number-one complaint we’ve heard from diet-cola consumers as to why they’re drinking less and less diet cola, ” Seth Kaufman, SVP for PepsiCo, told NPR.

Coca-Cola: No More Fire Retardant in Soda

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo both announced in May 2014 they would remove brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from all of their beverages. BVO was first patented as a flame retardant, but has also been added to many American sodas for decades, reported health expert Dr. Mercola. “Regardless of what the official statements say, the companies made this move due to consumer outrage started with an online petition…from a college student that gained over 200,000 signatures,” reported the Motley Fool.

Hershey’s Kisses Goodbye to GMO

The Hershey Co. announced in February 2015 it intends to remove genetically modified ingredients from Hershey’s Milk Chocolate and its iconic Kisses – first introduced in 1907 – by the end of 2015. The company will replace sugar derived from GMO sugar beets with cane sugar, and will switch to a non-GMO soy lecithin as it pledged to focus on “simple ingredients.” It will also remove the emulsifier polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR) and artificial vanillin in its products. Hershey in December 2014 said it would work to replace high-fructose corn syrup in sweets including York Peppermint Patties and Almond Joy candy bars. “We are specifically looking to formulate new products and transition existing products to deliver on no artificial flavors, no synthetic colors, no high fructose corn syrup and to be gluten free,” Hershey said in a statement.

Nestle Makes Over Butterfinger, Baby Ruth

Not to be outdone by the Hershey Co., Nestlé USA also announced in February 2015 it would remove artificial flavors and synthetic colors, including Red 40 and Yellow 5, from all of its chocolate candy products. By the end of 2015, more than 250 products and 10 brands, including Butterfinger, Crunch, and Baby Ruth candy and Nesquik powdered drink mixes, will be free of artificial flavors and certified colors, said the company. Products will begin appearing on store shelves by mid-2015, and will be identified by a “No Artificial Flavors or Colors” claim featured on-pack.

McDonalds: No Human Antibiotics in Chicken

McDonald’s will stop selling chicken treated with antibiotics that are also used in human medicine, the company announced in March 2105. The phase-out will occur over the next two years, as the world’s largest restaurant chain works with its suppliers, which include poultry giant Tyson Foods (see below). Chickens used by McDonald’s will still be treated with antibiotics that aren’t used in human medicine, reported Time Magazine. The announcement came three days after McDonald’s new CEO Steve Easterbrook took over leadership of the company, when he pledged to reform McDonald’s into a “modern, progressive burger company.”

Tyson Removes Human Antibiotics in Poultry Operations

Tyson Foods announced in April 2015 that it is striving to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by September 2017. The country’s largest producer of poultry will report annually on its progress, beginning with its fiscal 2015 Sustainability Report. In October 2014, Tyson said it no longer uses antibiotics in its 35 chicken hatcheries. The company still uses antibiotics in chicken feed “when prescribed by a veterinarian to treat or prevent disease” and said the “vast majority of the antibiotics” it uses aren’t used in humans. The company said it is researching “alternative treatments and protocols that will eventually eliminate the application of any antibiotics used in human medicine from poultry feed,” Food Safety News reported. Tyson offers a completely antibiotic-free chicken under its NatureRaised Farms brand.

Subway Bows to Food Babe Over Additive

After food blogger Vani Hari, also known as Food Babe, launched an online petition in early 2014 to convince Subway to remove a controversial food additive, the sandwich giant announced plans to phase it out of its fresh-baked breads, reported NPR in February 2014. The additive, azodicarbonamide, is often used by the commercial baking industry to bleach flour and condition dough. However, as the petition points out, the compound has been phased out in many other countries, and the World Health Organization has linked it to asthma in people. A spokesperson for Subway told NPR, “We are already in the process of removing azodicarbonamide as part of our bread improvement efforts, despite the fact that it is a USDA and FDA approved ingredient.

Dunkin’ Donuts Ditches Nanoparticles

Responding to concerns that a whitening agent, titanium dioxide, is a nanoparticle that may be unsafe for human consumption, Dunkin’ Donuts announced in March 2015 that it will no longer use the ingredient – also used in sunscreen and paints – in its donuts. The decision came after an environmental advocacy organization said it found titanium dioxide nanoparticles in the white powdered sugar used in Dunkin’ Donuts products, based on independent laboratory tests in 2013. As You Sow, an Oakland-based group, said the small size of nanomaterials might make them more likely to enter cells, tissues and organs and cause damage. The FDA does not have a broad stance on products containing nanomaterials, saying it would make safety judgments on an individual basis, reported the Los Angeles Times. Dunkin’ Donuts said the titanium dioxide used in its products “does not meet the definition of ‘nanomaterial’ as outlined under FDA guidance,” nonetheless it is making the change to remove the chemical from its donuts.

Yoplait Reduces Sugar Content by 25%

Following Yoplait’s removal of high fructose corn syrup and its discontinued used of dairy with rBGH/rBST growth hormone in 2009, the leading yogurt brand announced in May 2015 that it is reducing the sugar content in its single serve yogurt cups by 25%. The move is the latest in brand owner General Mills’ efforts to provide consumers with more healthful, category-leading products, reported Food Ingredients First. In order to reduce the sugar, Yoplait included additional milk and changed the natural flavorings, the company said, adding that Yoplait contains no artificial sweeteners or flavors.

Target Repositions Food Business Toward Healthier Options

Target in April 2015 named Anne Dament the company’s top executive to lead the repositioning of its food business. Dament brings nearly 20 years of grocery and consumer packaged goods experience to the role, including as a buyer at Supervalu and Safeway, said Target in an April 2015 press release. Target’s food reinvention, expected to take place over the next 18 months, will emphasize six key categories that resonate most with its customers: better-for-you snacks, coffee and tea, premium sauces and oils, specialty candy, wine and craft beer, and yogurt and granola. It will also expand the availability of natural, organic, locally grown and gluten-free choices to fit customers’ wellness-focused lifestyles, the company said. Work on the reinvention is underway, with the most significant changes slated to arrive in stores in 2016.

Wendy’s Goes Veggie

Columbus, OH, is the test market for a new black bean veggie burger at Wendy’s, the nation’s third largest burger chain, reported the Columbus Dispatch on May 18, 2015. While petitioners at had been asking the company, founded by Dave Thomas in Columbus in 1969, for a veggie burger option, Wendy’s had been testing its black bean burger at two locations in Columbus. White Castle, another Columbus-based burger chain, tested a veggie burger last year, purchasing its patties from a New Jersey company, Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, which also makes a line of frozen veggie-burger products. White Castle made the veggie burger a permanent menu item in March 2015. Additionally, in late April 2015, Wendy’s announced that it added an organic tea – Honest Tea’s Tropical Green Tea – to its permanent menu. The product began rolling out nationally in May. “While the move may seem insignificant, it’s huge for the organic food movement – taking organic beyond the world of specialty and natural foods restaurants and into the absolute mainstream of fast-food America,” said USA Today.

Steven Hoffman is Managing Director of Compass Natural Marketing, providing brand marketing, PR, social media, and strategic business development services to natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. He is the former Editorial Director of Natural Foods Merchandiser Magazine and co-founder of the LOHAS Journal. Contact

Guest Blog  By Steven Hoffman

USDA To Launch Non-GMO Certification and Labeling Program: “USDA Process Verified”

New “pay-to-play” program calls for companies to pay USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service to certify accuracy of non-GMO claims and allow “USDA Process Verified” to be added to a product’s non-GMO label claims.

Washington, DC (May 18, 2015) – Rather than address the call for mandatory labeling of GMOs, regulators and legislators in Washington, DC, seem to prefer the voluntary approach.

H.R. 1599, “the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” introduced by Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and often lampooned as the “Deny the Americans the Right to Know” or the DARK Act, seeks to do just that: outlaw mandatory labeling of GMOs at both the state and federal level in place of voluntary labeling, and allow producers to call GMOs “natural.”

Now, USDA is getting into the game with an unprecedented “pay-to-play” certification and labeling program that allows food manufacturers to make non-GMO claims on their food product packaging.

In an internal letter sent to employees on May 1 and obtained by the Associated Press, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined plans that USDA would soon introduce a new government certification and labeling program in which companies can pay USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to verify that their products are non-GMO. If approved, the food maker would be able to add a “USDA Process Verified” label to support non-GMO claims on product packaging.

Vilsack said the certification program was created at the request of a “leading global company,” which he did not identify. However, the New York Times reported on May 15 that publicly traded organic ingredient supplier and food processor SunOpta is the first to receive USDA’s non-GMO verification.

“Recently, a leading global company asked AMS to help verify that the corn and soybeans it uses in its products are not genetically engineered so that the company could label the products as such,” Vilsack wrote in the letter. “AMS worked with the company to develop testing and verification processes to verify the non-GE claim.”

According to the Associated Press, a USDA spokesman confirmed that Vilsack sent the letter but declined to comment on the non-GMO Process Verified Program (PVP). Vilsack stated in the letter that the certification program “will be announced soon, and other companies are already lining up to take advantage of this service.”

The label is a first for the government, and may or may not help resolve the ongoing debate over the safety of GMO foods or their impact on the environment. What it does offer is an alternative to non-GMO certification, which has been conducted primarily by one organization: the nonprofit Non-GMO Project.

“Today’s news is that for the first time a company has sought the USDA’s Process Verified label in connection with its non-GMO claim. The USDA has NOT created its own non-GMO standard or label. Rather, as part of the existing AMS PVP, it has signed off on one company’s own non-GMO practices. There is no transparency as to what these practices are, and they are not based on a third party standard,” the Non-GMO Project said in a May 14 blog post.

The USDA Organic label also certifies that foods are produced without the use of genetically engineered materials. However, organic advocates express concern that many foods that bear the non-GMO verified label are not “organic,” meaning that toxic, synthetic pesticides are still used to grow these crops.

Katherine Paul, Associate Director of the Organic Consumers Association also expressed concern to Marketplace Radio that under the USDA program, consumers would have to pay higher prices for non-GMO foods to cover the cost of certification, while GMO foods still don’t have to be labeled in the US.

Making it easier for consumers to find GMO-free food is a good thing, Paul said, but “not if it’s going to cause the manufacturers of those products to have to charge consumers more because they had to pay for that certification.”

“Having USDA verify that we are complying with our standards ensures that our customers can be confident that they are getting the highest quality non-GMO soybeans and corn,” SunOpta CEO Steven Bromley said in a May 18 statement. “We look forward to implementing the USDA PVP program at other SunOpta facilities across our vertically integrated platform.”

Pompeo Bill Stalls in Congress

While news was breaking about USDA’s non-GMO certification program, in late April, E&E Daily reported that Pompeo’s H.R. 1599 was stalled, leaving the controversial voluntary GMO labeling bill in limbo. House Agriculture Committee lawmakers want more control over deciding which government agency – USDA or FDA – would control the regulation of labels for genetically modified foods. However, the House Agriculture Committee has some jurisdiction over the bill, but less control than the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has oversight of FDA. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm to move the bill in that committee, not as much enthusiasm as there is in the Ag Committee; that’s the problem,” Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) told E&E Daily.

Others in Congress are backing the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, introduced in the Senate earlier this year by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and in the House by Peter DeFazio (D-OR). Their bill would require mandatory labels for all foods produced using genetically engineering ingredients and prohibit manufacturers from labeling GMO foods as natural.

“That would mean 70 to 80 percent of food (consumers) eat would have a GMO label on it,” Denzel McGuire, EVP of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), told The Hill. “We typically label the exception, not the rule. When you go into the grocery store you don’t see products labeled ‘not organic.’”

DeFazio countered that labeling products made with GMO ingredients aligns with the consumer’s right to know.

“The argument on their side is it’s generally recognized as safe and therefore it shouldn’t be on the label. Well, red dye number 2 is generally recognized as safe, but it’s on the label,” DeFazio said. “This is information consumers want.”

DeFazio acknowledged that it is unlikely his bill will pass the Republican controlled Congress, but he said Pompeo’s bill wouldn’t either — arguing it runs counter to GOP ideals. “They are states’ rights people and they are for a capitalist system under the precepts of Adam Smith, who said you’re supposed to give information to the consumers that they want,” he said.

On May 13, 328 farm, food, health, public interest and environmental organizations and businesses submitted a joint letter to members of Congress urging them to protect the consumer’s right to know and require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GMO) foods. The letter asked members of Congress not to support H.R. 1599, and instead support bills introduced by Rep. DeFazio and Sen. Boxer that would create a federal standard for GMO labeling.

Fast Track Trade Authority Seen As Threat to GMO Labeling

Rep. DeFazio also spoke out against a provision buried in “fast track” trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation that could help a government or multinational corporation attack state or national laws that require the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

TPA, also known as “fast track” would give President Obama the authority to push through major international trade deals with little to no input from Congress. The Obama administration is asking Congress for fast track authority in order to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free trade agreement with the European Union.

“Call it the smoking gun,” said DeFazio in an April 29 press release. “Proof that fast track and massive free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are written by and for multinational corporations such as agriculture giant Monsanto. Instead of using trade deals as an opportunity to protect and strengthen consumer rights by joining the countries which require genetically engineered food to be labeled, this administration wants to benefit wealthy corporations at the expense of the public.”

The provision, included in Section 2, Trade Negotiating Objectives, requires that US negotiators fight for rules in trade agreements that eliminate so-called “barriers” to markets such as the labeling of GMO foods.  Currently, 64 countries require GMO labeling, including some of the U.S.’s largest trading partners, such as Japan, China, Brazil, and the EU.

Additionally, Bloomberg News reported on May 8 that differences between the US and EU on issues such as genetically engineered foods and crops will make negotiations for a transatlantic trade deal difficult, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. The European Commission’s proposal “to allow states and countries to opt-out of GE crops for cultivation and feed” makes it very, very difficult,” Vilsack said while attending G-20 agriculture ministers’ meeting in Istanbul.

Vermont GMO Labeling Law Can Move Forward, Despite Appeal

The state of Vermont can proceed with new rules to require mandatory labeling of GMO foods by July 1, 2016, despite a request for a preliminary injunction by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Foods Association and others.

The April 27 decision made by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Christina Reiss allows Vermont to go ahead with its plans to become the first state to require labeling of GMO foods. However, Judge Reiss also allowed litigation led by GMA to stop the new law to proceed.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell told the Burlington Free Press that there is much in the judge’s decision that goes the state’s way for the “heart and soul” of the labeling law. But he also acknowledged it may be a reach for the state in other areas, including its desire to ban food companies using GMO ingredients from using the word “natural.”

GMA filed a notice of appeal May 6, claiming the Vermont judge’s ruling opens the door to states imposing food regulations based on “pseudo-science and web-fed hysteria,” reported The Hill.

Steven Hoffman is Managing Director of Compass Natural Marketing, providing brand marketing, PR, social media, and strategic business development services to natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. He is the former Editorial Director of Natural Foods Merchandiser Magazine and co-founder of the LOHAS Journal. Contact

Growing demand for organics, combined with near-total reliance by US farmers on GMO corn and soybeans, is driving a huge increase in US imports of organic and non-GMO corn from such far-flung countries as Romania, Turkey and the Netherlands – the top three exporters of organic corn to the US in 2014, respectively, says the Organic Trade Association, which conducted an analysis of US trade data with Pennsylvania State University. The report is “a help-wanted sign” for US farmers willing to avoid the use of artificial chemicals and genetically modified seeds, said OTA Executive Director Laura Batcha. Imports to the US of Romanian organic corn rose to $11.6 million in 2014 from $545,000 the year before. Organic soybean imports from India – the largest supplier of organic soybeans to the US – more than doubled to $73.8 million in 2014.

Before the Sunset: Spring NOSB Meeting Covers New Ground; Nearly 200 Materials Up for 2017 Sunset Review

 By Alesia Bock, AgriSystems International

The Spring 2015 National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting welcomed several new board members, received a large amount of public comment, voted on material petitions and 2016 Sunset review, and renewed a call for user input on nearly 200 materials up for 2017 Sunset review.

La Jolla CA (April 30, 2015) – This Spring’s NOSB meeting in April had an aggressive four-day agenda, chock full of NOP/NOSB updates, public comment, petition review/votes, 2016 Sunset review votes, and a preliminary review of all 198 materials up for Sunset 2017. All materials on the Sunset 2017 list will be up for final board review and voted on at the October 26-29, 2015, NOSB Fall Meeting in Stowe, VT.

Please be advised that it is critical that users of these materials make their voices heard during the public comment period, generally a month prior to the meeting, either by written comment, or by signing up for a Speaker Slot at the meeting. More details from the NOSB, below:

USDA National Organic Program (NOP) Update

The NOP Organic update, presented by NOP Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy, included a preview of the 2018 strategic plan – “Protect Organic Integrity, Review the Past and Plan for the Future.” Several accomplishments were highlighted over the past five years, including clearer access to pasture rules, implementation of pesticide residue testing, and increased focus on audits and enforcement. NOP is also working to deliver a new and improved searchable database for certified organic operations by later this year. Focus areas for the next round of rulemaking include: Animal Welfare standards, aquaculture, apiculture, mushrooms and pet food. 

National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) Update

NOSB Chair Jean Richardson kicked off the Spring 2015 meeting by showing her magic wand and hammer to the group in order to run a “tight ship” – reminding everyone to be respectful of each other, seek common ground, and appreciate ALL stakeholder positions. Jean mentioned an interesting statistic — even though Organic is a $40-billion industry and growing rapidly, it is still less than 5% of overall U.S.-based agriculture. Richardson said the Board appreciated the large amount of public comment received since the last meeting. NOSB must take a multi-disciplinary and multi-faceted approach in reviewing materials and providing recommendations to NOP, and public comment is very helpful in making decisions. There are no easy black and white answers, everything is nuanced, she said.

Petitions for Materials to be Added to the National List

There were nine petitions reviewed at the Spring NOSB meeting, of which two passed and seven failed.

Passed, and allowed for organic production:

  • Livestock – Two alternative healthcare treatments will be added to the list: Zinc Sulfate (hoof care) and Acidified Sodium Chlorite (teat dip for dairy herds) – found to be necessary for the health of the animals, as no organic alternative is currently as effective, and the treatments create no adverse impact on the environment, animals, or humans.

Failed, and therefore will remain prohibited in Organic production:

  • Crops– Exhaust gas, Calcium Sulfate, and 3-decene-2-one
  • Handling – Whole Algal Flour, Ammonium Hydroxide, PGME (Polyalkylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether), and Triethyl Citrate

Final Vote on 2016 Sunset Material Review

Of the 12 non-organic approved materials up for final Sunset review and vote, seven were renewed, and five were voted to be removed from the list:

Re-Listed (Vote to remove failed so therefore will be re-listed):

  • Crops – Ferric Phosphate (slug control) and Hydrogen Chloride (cottonseed de-linting)
  • Handling – L-Malic Acid, Microorganisms, Activated Charcoal, Peracetic Acid, and Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate

Removed from list:

  • Handling – Egg White Lysozyme, Boiler Additives (Cyclohexylamine, Diethylaminoethanol, Octadecylamine), and Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate

Other Key Votes

NOSB also issued key votes on glycerin and synthetic methionine in organic production.

Glycerin – Petition to Remove:

After several rounds of petitioning to remove synthetic glycerin from the National List as an allowed handling ingredient, NOSB unanimously voted to allow the use of non-organic agricultural (non-synthetic) glycerin in organic products, only when organic forms are not commercially available. NOP future rulemaking will remove synthetic glycerin from the National List and it will be prohibited in Organic products. Non-organic agricultural (non-synthetic) glycerin may be used in natural flavors and “made with organic” products without the requirement to attempt to source organic.

Synthetic Methionine:

A petition was submitted to revise the current annotation. NOSB discussed and voted on a proposal to change the current allowance of synthetic methionine (an essential amino acid in poultry) from a maximum rate (lbs/ton) to an average rate calculated over the life of the birds – in order to provide more methionine at a young age when chicks are growing, and reduce it later when then don’t need as much. Many public comments were heard during the meeting that indicated the step-down methionine decision from previous boards may have inadvertently caused an Animal Welfare issue, as there have been cases documented where animals had increased health issues, and decreased air quality in chicken houses due to higher levels of ammonia. Consumer groups were steadfast in their recommendations to remove synthetic methionine from the list, but this annotation change was a way to mitigate immediate animal welfare concerns while knowing that synthetic methionine will again be on the Sunset List for removal soon. NOSB discussion focused on striking an appropriate balance between the realities of farm production/animal welfare, and consumer preferences/trust in the Organic Label. NOSB voted in favor of the new annotation language, but also remains committed to finding organic alternatives to synthetic methionine, in order to phase it out. More commercially available organic alternatives need to be researched and developed.

Here is an informative summary and chart compiled by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) from the Spring 2015 NOSB Meeting.

Preliminary Review of 2017 Sunset Materials- Comments Are Critical

There are 198 materials across Crops, Livestock, and Handling currently up for final review prior to the Fall 2015 NOSB meeting. At that time, the board will vote to recommend whether to keep or remove from the list.

It is critical that members of the organic industry provide feedback on these materials during the public comment period when it is announced later this year (either via written comments through the website, by signing up to give Public Comment at the Fall meeting, or – anytime by sending feedback to OTA, where the association will be tallying comments in order to provide Industry perspective in aggregate prior to the meeting. Per OTA, their Survey System was able to collect information in a highly effective way in order to submit 456 unique responses back to NOSB.

AgriSystems recommends that clients seriously consider using the OTA tool, in order to provide feedback to NOSB on those materials that are still necessary to produce Organic Certified Products.

Here is a list of all materials and their Sunset Dates. Of the materials, several were flagged as highly likely to be voted to remove unless more public input is provided. These are the priority materials to review and provide comment.

2017 Sunset Materials Highlights


Non-agricultural – waxes (carnauba, wood resin), ammonium / magnesium carbonate, magnesium stearate, potassium phosphate, & sodium phosphates.

Agricultural – Chia seeds, chipotle peppers, frozen lemon grass, celery powder, colors, gelatin, dillweed oil, frozen galangal, whey protein concentrate, sweet potato starch, and cornstarch.

Note on Lecithin De-Oiled – if you need a non-soy-based lecithin such as Sunflower to avoid the soy allergen labeling requirement, please comment. There is not currently a commercially available source of organic sunflower lecithin available due to supply issues. Let NOSB know!

Even items that have been on the National List since the beginning must be reviewed, including tocopherols, xanthan gum / other gums, sodium bicarbonate, chlorine materials / hydrogen peroxide, fructooligosaccharides, inulin oligofructose, and dried orange pulp.


Livestock – Furosemide, Paraciticides, Poloxalene, Copper Sulfate, Mineral Oil.


Crops – Lignin Sulfonate, Vitamins B1,C, and E, Ethylene, EPA List 4 Inerts.

In summary – the Sunset Process now includes two meetings to receive public comment, and the NOSB votes to remove the material. Once NOSB votes to remove a material from the National List, the recommendation goes to NOP for rulemaking. This year’s Fall NOSB meeting, Oct. 26-29, 2015, at the Stoweflake Conference Center in Stowe, VT, will be the final time the board votes to remove these 198 Sunset 2017 materials.

Here are helpful links for the NOP Sunset Review Process, instructions and timing to Provide Comments to NOSB, or provide feedback at any time between now and Fall 2015 by participating in the OTA SUNSET SURVEY. OTA will compile all the information in an aggregate way on behalf of the Organic Industry – so please make your voice heard!

Alesia Bock is the Owner/ Managing Director of AgriSystems International, providing consulting services related to organic certification and sustainable business development for food growers and processors.   Over her 25-year career in Quality & Regulatory in the food industry, she has dedicated the last 15 years to increasing the availability of natural/organic options for consumers. She can be reached at


Representing four food industry trade groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association on June 12 filed a lawsuit against the state of Vermont, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new GMO labeling law. Vermont’s Legislature passed the first no-strings attached, mandatory GMO labeling law, set to take effect in July 2016.

The new labeling law “exceeds the state’s authority under the United States Constitution and in light of this GMA has filed a complaint in federal district court in Vermont seeking to enjoin this senseless mandate,” GMA said in its complaint.

Anticipating such lawsuits, Vermont’s GMO labeling law also established a legal “Defense Fund” of $1.5 million. Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell on June 12 said, “it would be a heck of a fight, but we would zealously defend the law.”

To support the legal defense fund, Vermont ice cream producer Ben & Jerry’s, in the process of switching to all non-GMO ingredients, renamed its fudge brownie ice cream Food Fight! Fudge Brownie. During the month of July, the company will contribute $1 from each purchase at its Burlington and Waterbury scoop shops to the state’s Food Fight Fund.

“It is worth noting that Organic was the original ‘NON-GMO’, so always look for the USDA Certified Organic Seal on the label,” said Tom Harding, Founder of AgriSystems International, and Founding President of the Organic Trade Association.


USDA Organic Seal


On May 19, 2014, USDA National Organic Program issued final guidance to clarify labeling of foods in the “Made with Organic” category, as follows:  “Multi-ingredient agricultural products in the “Made with organic…” category must contain at least 70% certified organic ingredients (not including salt or water). These products may contain up to 30% of allowed non-organic ingredients. All ingredients, including the 30% non-organic ingredients, must be produced without GMOs or other prohibited substances such as most synthetic pesticides.”


What is the cost of preventing global warming? Not that expensive, really, if one considers switching to widely available and inexpensive organic farming practices, says Rodale Institute in a landmark White Paper published in May 2014.

In fact, says Rodale after conducting more than 30 years of ongoing field research, organic farming practices and improved land management can move agriculture from one of today’s primary sources of global warming and carbon pollution to a potential carbon sink powerful enough to sequester 100% of the world’s current annual CO2 emissions.

Or, as the Wall Street Journal reported in May 2014, “Organic practices could counteract the world’s yearly carbon dioxide output while producing the same amount of food as conventional farming…”

Rodale’s researchers point to organic farming as a way to reduce energy inputs, help minimize agriculture’s impact on global warming, and also help farmers adapt to rising global temperatures.

“Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture.’ These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect, said the study’s authors.

Conventional Agriculture Adds Heat

The global food system is estimated to account for one-third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, says Anna Lappe, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. Much of the fossil fuel used in commercial agriculture comes not only from running tractors and machinery, but also because petroleum is a primary ingredient in synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, widely used in conventional agriculture.

While asserting that pesticides and GMOs are the only way to feed a rising global population, conventional agriculture and livestock production are today a significant part of the problem, says Rodale, and also are responsible for widespread clearing of forests, grasslands and prairies. Palm oil production alone, with its devastating destruction of the world’s largest rainforest region, is why Indonesia is the world’s third largest greenhouse gas producer.

Also, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is known to release large amounts of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, a potent GHG and a primary threat to earth’s ozone layer. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer also is responsible for the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an oxygen-depleted area the size of New Jersey in which no fish can survive.

Organic A Cool Solution

According to Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, author of Food, Energy and Society, organic agriculture has been shown to reduce energy inputs by 30%. Organic farming also conserves more water in the soil and reduces erosion. Also, healthy organic soils tie up carbon in the soil, helping to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

“On-farm soil carbon sequestration can potentially sequester all of our current annual global greenhouse gas emissions of roughly 52 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (~52 GtCO2e). Indeed, if sequestration rates attained by exemplar cases were achieved on crop and pastureland across the globe, regenerative agriculture could sequester more than our current annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions,” concluded the Rodale study.

Farming in a Warmer Future

Changes in temperature caused by global warming could have dramatic effects on agriculture. Extreme weather, rising temperatures, drought and flood caused by global warming all could have an adverse impact on yield, disease and insect pests.

Organic farmers may be better able to adapt to climate change, in that healthy organic soils retain moisture better during drought, making it more available to plant roots. Also, organic soils percolate water better during floods, helping to decrease runoff and soil erosion.

According to Rodale Institute’s 30-year field trials, in good weather, yields for organic and conventional corn and soybeans are comparable. However, organic soils are 28-70% higher in production in periods of drought compared to conventional soils. Researchers at the University of Michigan similarly found that while yields are comparable in developed countries, organic farms in developing countries can produce 80% more than conventional farms.

Rodale also found that during flood, there is 25-50% more water infiltration in organic soils, thus preventing runoff and erosion. Carbon-rich organic soils act as a sponge: for every pound of carbon increased in the soil matter, you can add up to 40 lb. of additional water retention, says Rodale.

For developing nations, organic farming could make a huge difference in adapting to climate change. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, organic farming can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, the FAO found that organic agriculture could build up natural resources, strengthen communities, and improve human capacity, “thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reported, “Sustainable and organic agricultural systems offer the most resilience for agricultural production in the face of the extreme precipitation, prolonged droughts and increasingly uncertain regional climate regimes expected with rapid global warming.”

organic consumer driven farmer powered graphic

The organic products industry grew to be a $35-billion business in 2013, reported the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in May 2014. The reported 11.5% increase from 2012 is the fastest growth rate in the last five years. The OTA expects this growth will continue over the next two years.

 “Consumers are making the correlation between what we eat and our health, and that knowledge is spurring heightened consumer interest in organic products,” said Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of OTA.

Organic products are comprised of foods, flowers, fiber, household products and pet food. Organic food sales, which accounts for about 92% of total organic sales, were $32.3 billion in 2013. Organic food sales broke the $30 billion mark in 2012 and, according to the OTA, now accounts for more than 4% of the $760 billion in annual food sales in the United States. While total foods sales have averaged an annual average growth of 3%, the growth rate of organic food sales has grown an average of 10% every year since 2010.

Although continued growth is expected in the sale of organic products, there is still confusion among consumers about what organic means. The message of organic can be lost next to the presence of “natural” products and the long debate around GMOs, cautioned the OTA.

“The entire organic industry needs to rally around helping consumers better understand and appreciate all the values that certified organic brings to the table,” said Batcha. “Consumer education is critical to grow the organic industry,” she added.



The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) held its public meeting April 29 – 2, 2014, in San Antonio, TX, to discuss a number of action items related to the Organic industry. This year, the spring meeting included many agenda items held over from the fall meeting, which was cancelled due to the partial government shutdown in October 2013. Of particular interest at the spring meeting was the discussion of synthetic methionine, streptomycin, and a disagreement over proposed changes in organic “sunset” rules between organic consumer advocacy and industry groups.

Synthetic Methionine – For the Birds?

A proposal to allow more flexible use of synthetic methionine by averaging the amount over the life of the bird in organic poultry feed and egg production failed to get the required two-thirds majority vote at the spring NOSB meeting. The decision concerned a number of organic egg and poultry producers who claim their birds are suffering from inadequate nutrition because of methionine supplementation restrictions. Several commenters shared compelling testimony on health and behavior issues their flocks were experiencing. The methionine discussion will go back to committee and may be included in the fall 2014 NOSB meeting in Louisville, KY. Meanwhile, existing rules for methionine apply, which is a hard cap of 2 lb. per ton of feed for broilers and layers, 3 lb. for turkeys and other fowl. Rodale’s New Farm magazine, however, reported that West Virginia University researchers found that producers could grow healthy birds without synthetic methionine – “as long as the birds had adequate access to pasture.”

Streptomycin – Into the Sunset

Streptomycin was the only remaining exception to the prohibition on the use of antibiotics in organic. Streptomycin is currently on the list to sunset in October 2014. Apple and pear growers petitioned that the sunset should be extended until October 2017 in order to find suitable alternatives, arguing that the drug is needed to treat fire blight, a bacterial disease that kills the shoots of trees. The NOSB motion to amend the current expiration from October 2014 to October 2017 and specifically annotate only for use on apple and pear crops for fire blight control failed. Therefore, Streptomycin will sunset as of October 2014. With this ruling, USDA Organic now prohibits the use of all antibiotics. According to Alesia Bock, Director of Agrisystems International, NOSB is committed to the phase-out of this material, and encourages research and development of acceptable alternative materials and/or methods to control fire blight in organic apple and pear crops.

Aquaculture – Back to Committee

All aquaculture materials proposed for organic farm-raised fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and algae were referred back to NOSB’s Livestock Subcommittee. Also, a motion was passed to require the NOP to publish draft aquaculture standards and updated Technical Reviews before the Livestock Subcommittee would consider any aquaculture material listings in the future.

Sunset Review Subject to Change

Disagreement and a protest by Organic Consumers Association (OCA) at the NOSB meeting concerned a move by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) that could potentially make it more difficult for the NOSB to phase out synthetic and non-organic materials from organic food. The OCA argued that the revised sunset review would not apply adequate pressure on the organic industry to find alternatives. In the past, materials were reviewed every five years. Currently, these materials need to be petitioned to remain on the list. The change allows for materials to remain on the list until they are petitioned to be removed. At the NOSB meeting, Dr. Lisa Brines of USDA NOP explained that NOP was given a directive from the Secretary of Agriculture to streamline Organic (NOP) rulemaking. There were two intended goals: 1) Create a thorough and transparent review process for all substances and allow for two public comment periods before the review process is complete; and 2) Ensure any changes to the list (petitioned or Sunset) is supported by two-thirds majority of NOSB. Some lawmakers are also protesting this change. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Or.), authors of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, voiced their disapproval in an April 2014 letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, saying the policy change was “in conflict with both the letter and intent of the statute.” Recommendations about the sunset change will be further discussed at the next NOSB meeting.

On November 6, just one day after Washington State’s I-522 GMO labeling bill was narrowly defeated, USDA moved to deregulate two new GMO soybean varieties and a GMO apple genetically engineered to resist browning. Additionally, reports indicate that FDA may soon approve GMO salmon – the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption.

In approving Monsanto’s GMO soy, MON 87712, genetically engineered to produce higher yield by splicing in a light-sensitive gene from Arabidopsis thaliana or the mouse-ear cress plant, a common weed in Europe, USDA said in a Federal Register notice that it evaluated data submitted by Monsanto, an analysis of available scientific data, and public comments in determining that the GMO soybean is “unlikely to pose a plant pest risk” and is of “no significant impact.” At the same time, USDA recommended deregulating an herbicide-resistant GMO soybean made by BASF, plus a GMO apple genetically engineered to resist browning when sliced. The comment period for the BASF herbicide-resistant GMO soy and the GMO apple ended on December 10.

Monsanto also hopes to garner approval in 2014 of GMO corn, soy and cotton genetically engineered to be tolerant to applications of dicamba and 2,4-D (also known as Agent Orange), two potent and toxic synthetic herbicides that growers have had to resort to, as weed resistance to glyphosate, or “Roundup” has increased dramatically as a result of its overuse in GMO crop production.

In fact, GMO crops have increased overall pesticide use in the U.S. by 404 million pounds from 1996 through 2011, said Washington State University researcher Chuck Benbrook, Ph.D., in his 2012 study, “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Foods on Pesticide Use in the U.S. – the First 16 Years. According to USDA, glyphosate use alone increased by more than 6,500% from 1991 to 2010. Contrary to biotech’s claims that GMOs reduce the need for chemicals, overall pesticide use in 2011 was 20% higher on each acre planted to a GMO crop, compared to pesticide use on acres not planted to GMO crops, reported Benbrook.

The GMO apple, marketed under the “Arctic” brand by Okanagan Specialty Fruits in British Colombia, uses controversial technology originally developed in GMO potatoes to suppress the gene that turns apples brown when sliced. The GMO apple’s creator says browning has economic costs and that it has already engineered Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples, with Fuji and Gala varieties next in line. Opponents of the GMO apple say browning is a natural indicator of an aging piece of fruit, and along with organic growers are concerned about GMO contamination of orchards, both organic and non-GMO, while also fearing that negative consumer perception may lead to a decline in apple sales in general.

Independent studies have found risks associated with the technology used in GMO apples. While most existing GMOs are designed to make new proteins, reports Melody Meyer, VP of Policy and Industry Relations for UNFI and President of the Organic Trade Association, in her blog Organic Matters, GMO apples make dsRNA in order to alter the way genes are expressed. Recent research has shown that dsRNA can transfer from plants to humans and other animals through ingesting food or by inhaling dust from the plant or absorption through the skin, and while RNA is a normal component of all cells, in dsRNA form it can have effects that depend on the species and tissues exposed to it.

Additionally, recent reports indicate that FDA may approve GMO salmon before the end of the year or in early 2014. The AquAdvantage salmon, created by Massachusetts-based biotech firm Aqua Bounty, is genetically engineered with a Chinook salmon growth gene and an “antifreeze” gene from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout, which makes the fish grow twice as fast as naturally occurring salmon. Paving the way for the prospect of imminent approval in the U.S., in late November Canada became the first country to approve commercial production of genetically engineered salmon eggs, stating that a panel of independent transgenics and fish containment technology experts found no risk to the environment or human health when the eggs are produced in contained facilities. Canada has not yet approved GMO salmon for human consumption.

Aqua Bounty assures regulators the safety of its production system, which includes producing the GMO salmon eggs in containment facilities on Prince Edward Island in Canada and then shipping them to a facility in Panama for maturation and processing before shipping cut fillets to the U.S. and other markets that allow genetically engineered foods. However, opponents stress that GMO salmon could escape into nature and threaten native species, and that there may be higher risk of cancer and allergies associated with consumption of GMO salmon. Also, recent reports have documented troubles at Aqua Bounty’s facilities in Panama, including lack of legally required permits and inspections, including a wastewater discharge permit, “lost” GMO salmon, and routine, destructive flooding in the area of the facility.

Several major retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Aldi and Target, have announced they will not sell the GMO salmon in their stores. Also, in November, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Mark Begich (D-AK) co-sponsored a petition calling for the FDA not to approve the GMO salmon. To date, nearly 100,000 people in all 50 states have signed the petition.

But is it kosher? The Orthodox Union (OU) says GMO salmon is kosher, because it has fins and scales. However, eels, which lack scales, are not considered Kosher, creating a dilemma for observers who enjoy salmon lox with their bagels. “Creation of a part-fish, part-eel seems impermissible as a violation of the Torah’s prohibition to mix species,” says writer Lisa Kassner in the Jewish Journal. Natural Food Certifiers, is one of the few certifiers offering Organic, Kosher, and Non-GMO verification with its GMO Guard program, as well as Gluten Free and Vegan verification. NFC announced in April that it would not allow its “Apple K” logo to appear on products that contain GMOs, including the proposed GMO salmon.

AgriSystems continues to remind clients and consumers to make informed choices and let your voices be heard. If you prefer non-GMO ingredients, continue to look for and purchase currently available Certified Organic and/or Non-GMO verified products wherever possible.

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