New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farm is one of two organic dairy producers that have withdrawn from a trade group seeking to overturn Vermont’s GMO labeling law. The other is California’s Clover Stornetta Farms.
The companies say they are “under fire” from consumers who support the policy, according to a letter sent to the head of the International Dairy Foods Association.
Vermont’s GMO law would require labeling of certain food products containing genetically engineered ingredients starting in 2016. The IDFA is one of four trade groups that have filed suit against Vermont, arguing the law is unconstitutional. the lead plaintiff is the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
“Our decision to stop our membership wasn’t that hard, honestly,” said Britt Lundgren, director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield Farm. “I don’t view this as a big loss for us. Stonyfield is a strong supporter of GMO labeling across the country.”
A split in the ranks
On July 8, an organic faction appeared within the IDFA when five members, all represented by another organic trade group, sent a letter to the association’s president to express their “deep concern and unhappiness” with IDFA’s decision to participate in the lawsuit.
“We are not clear why IDFA entered the lawsuit, as the labeling law does not affect dairy ingredients. As near as we can tell, this was an internal decision, with little or no consideration for the diverse interests of the membership,” the letter states.
The letter continues that the lawsuit gave the companies “serious pause” to consider whether IDFA could continue to be “a constructive association for those of us in the organic sector.” Two members later dropped their membership.
“I hope that IDFA takes this as message that they do need to do a better job of reaching out to all of their stakeholders,” Lundgren said.
But others, including Horizon Organic, Aurora Organic Dairy and Organic Valley, will retain their membership with the IDFA. They are also members of the Organic Trade Association, a vocal proponent of state GMO labeling initiatives.
“We still belong to the IDFA,” wrote Sara Loveday, a spokesperson for Horizon Organic, which is a subsidiary of the Denver, Colorado-based WhiteWave Foods Company, in an email to VTDigger. “But the organization has agreed that our dues have not and will not be used for anti-labeling efforts.”
Horizon decided to stay with the IDFA in order to have a seat at the table, Loveday said.
“We believe that the most effective option for fighting the IDFA’s anti-labeling actions is to use the power of our memberships to voice our opposition to their approach. As you referenced, we have made it clear to the IDFA that we do not approve of their decision to join GMA’s lawsuit against the state of Vermont, and we are in ongoing discussions with them about their position,” Loveday wrote.
Peggy Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the IDFA, said as far as she knows, no other members have withdrawn.
“We’re sad to lose any member,” Armstrong said. The company represents 200 dairy companies, many of which she said agree with the trade group’s position. “We have not been hearing from a lot of people saying they support Vermont.”
The ubiquity problem
Though dairy products are exempt under the law, many producers use sweeteners, such as corn syrup, which often comes from genetically engineered crops. Even a company like WhiteWave, which owns Horizon Organic, has products in its portfolio that contain GMOs, a spokesperson said.
Some companies oppose the state labeling law, but prefer a uniform national policy. The trade groups in the lawsuit argue a patchwork of labeling creates a costly logistical obstacle for food producers.
“We support national standards that are based on science and determined by federal agencies that hold the responsibility for food safety and labeling regulations,” wrote Sandy Yusen, a spokesperson for Keurig Green Mountain, Inc, in an email to VTDigger.
The Waterbury-based company, a GMA member, does not use genetically engineered ingredients in its coffee beans, but some of its beverage products may contain GMOs, according to Yusen. The company, like Starbucks, remains neutral on the controversial topic, but prefers a national solution.
Yusen said company membership dues are not allocated to the lawsuit in Vermont or to other anti-labeling campaigns. On the other hand, the company does not plan to donate to Vermont’s legal defense fund.
Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director for the Organic Trade Association, which represents some of IDFA’s members, said member companies have a right to voice their own perspective, as long as they do not publicly attack the trade association.
“Having a policy as a trade association doesn’t require a unanimity of thought,” Batcha said.