Gary Hirshberg’s Stonyfield faces hypocrisy backlash over misleading labels

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Gary Hirshberg is a bit selective when it comes to transparency and labeling food and ingredients…at least when it applies to his own products.

In a televised interview with Bloomberg earlier this month, Hirshberg–the chairman of Stonyfield Organic and funder of the anti-GMO, pro-labeling Just Label It organization–was asked by a reporter why the company doesn’t give more information about the ‘natural flavor’ ingredient listed on its yoghurt containers.

What the heck is “natural flavor”? the reporter wanted to know, holding up a Stonyfield yoghurt cup? What are the actual ingredients, he asked Hirshberg, who regularly campaigns for labeling transparency–when it applies to competitors.

“We’re complying with FDA laws,” Hirshberg replied, clearly taken aback by the question. His response sounded more like a carefully crafted statement from a Big Food executive rather than the reaction of the self-proclaimed progressive voice for a consumer’s right to know. “Natural flavors is a term of trade…but we welcome consumers demanding that kind of thing.”

In other words, he wouldn’t frankly answer the question.

It was interesting to watch Hirshberg squirm. And for a guy who spends lots of time – and money – trying to convince voters and legislators to mandate GM labeling, it was a revealing moment. He’s strident about labeling genetically engineered ingredients and underwrites groups like Just Label It, Only Organic and Food Policy Action yet defends his own lack of transparency. He scoffs at those who insist GMO labels would impose an undue burden and cost, but laments the onerous task of defining one of his company’s most widely-used ingredients.

“If you list the ingredients in natural flavors, I would have to have another couple pages,” Hirshberg said, laughing off the question. Then perhaps catching his own hypocrisy, he rebounded with, “but we’re all for it.”

The truth is that Stonyfield can print any information it wants on food packaging; the FDA doesn’t pre-approve most food labels. And if the ingredient list is too technical or lengthy, it could be posted on the Stonyfield website for full disclosure. I’m sure Stonyfield could even post a cute cartoon or colorful picture to explain the ingredient (the company apparently thinks moms need child-like visual aids in order to understand information).

A deeper dive into Stonyfield’s packaging shows the company has been consistently hypocritical about its ingredients. The Environmental Working Group posts scores for 80,000 food products, including more than 100 from Stonyfield. Many Stonyfield products were flagged by EWG for containing “the non-specific ingredient ‘flavor’.” According to EWG, “added flavors are secret and often complex mixtures of chemicals that modify and manipulate the taste and smell of food. The lack of disclosure is a public right to know issue and especially concerning to people with unusual food allergies or on restricted diets.”

Two frozen yogurt bars received an eight-out-of-10 (10 is the worst score) because “rice-based ingredients may contain arsenic.” Both products use rice syrup as a sweetener and according to the EWG, “a rice plant naturally takes up arsenic from the water in the soil. The concentration of arsenic in this product will depend on the amount of rice-based ingredient used.” But you won’t find that information on the Stonyfield container.

Arsenic isn’t the only scary-sounding ingredients lurking in Stonyfield treats. The Cornucopia Institute released a comprehensive report on the yogurt industry last year – Culture Wars – that closely evaluated dozens of yogurt products. The report scored yogurt companies on a number of criteria. While Stonyfield scored well overall because it’s organic, the company received a “zero” for a few categories, including added flavoring, added coloring and synthetic nutrients.

photoStonyfield was also called out for using carrageenan in its squeezable yogurt products. Carrageenan is an extract of red seaweed (so therefore natural) but – according to the Cornucopia report – “scientists have warned that the use of carrageenan in food is not safe. Animal studies have repeatedly shown that food-grade carrageenan is associated with gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations and even malignant tumors.”

Even if the claims about carrageenan are questionable, you can be certain Stonyfield consumers would “want to know” (a favorite adage of Mr. Hirshberg) about its use. In fact, Stonyfield’s website addresses carrageenan and promises “changes to our other recipes that include carrageenan.” But again, that ingredient is not listed on Stonyfield’s squeezable yogurt.

Kinda shady policy from a company whose chairman said in that same interview, “you can’t have it both ways. If you’re fighting labeling, you’re concealing. And we’re saying you should be revealing.”

Hirshberg’s interview stumble could be a metaphor for the anti-GMO movement of late. It’s been a rough several months, culminating with a huge media backlash to Chipotle’s dubious GMO-free menu claim. The shine may be coming off the organic apple and Hirshberg – about as smart and shrewd of a businessman as you’ll find – might be feeling the heat.

Last year’s elections delivered strong setbacks to the anti-GM movement: the defeat of pro-labeling initiatives in Oregon (close) and Colorado (by a 2-1 margin). National newspapers continue to editorialize against GM labeling laws, including a Washington Post op-ed in March that strongly argued against the idea and a piece in USA Today this week suggesting that opposing GMOs on safety grounds–as Hirshberg does–is a “kooky notion.” The anti-GMO activists may still sit atop a populist groundswell but the science minded and the chattering classes now see therm as hapless pseudo-science stooges.

There are other dark clouds for Hirshberg and activists in the organic community. A study released by Mintel, a London-based food and drink research firm, shows consumers are growing wary–and perhaps weary–of the organic label. “While sales of organic products are on the rise, actual consumer penetration has plateaued,” the firm noted. Although Millennials are organics biggest consumers, overall, only one-third of all consumers had purchased an organic products in the last three months.

Shoppers of all ages might be catching on to the marketing tactics of the extremist wing of the organic industry. “Our research finds half of consumers say labeling something as organic is an excuse to charge more. Considering the typically higher cost of organic foods and beverages, consumers are increasingly hard pressed to justify the added expense,” said Billy Roberts, Senior Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel. “As such, sales have hit something of a plateau, where they likely will remain until consumers have a clear reason to turn to organics.”

Given that information, it might be a wiser strategy for Hirshberg to return to selling organics honestly rather than peddling a fear campaign against GMOs. After all, he’s the one who warned that “…these companies, these brands, are going to quickly find out that the cost to their reputation for fighting labeling are probably more than the cost of having labels.” To the contrary; fighting for mandatory labeling might cost both the reputation and bottom line of the organic industry in the long run.

Julie Kelly is the owner of Now You’re Cooking in Orland Park, Illinois. She is a cooking instructor and food writer, but her biggest job is being a mom. She can be reached at nowurcooking@att.net or on Twitter at @Julie_kelly2.

  • Debbie Young
    • Julie Kelly

      Hi Debbie – Thanks for the information. I wrote the caveat about carrageenan because it’s probably safe, but wanted to point out the hypocrisy of these folks. Plenty of dubious science claiming certain ingredients are unsafe (like the claims they make about GMOs) yet they’re hush-hush on the ingredients when its used in their products. I appreciate the link, thank you!

  • mem_somerville

    Also super funny–the yogurt cups were made of GMOs: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/01/23/938322/-Stonyfield-Farms-using-GMOs

    • agscienceliterate

      Hey, Mem – I fully expect Gary to mandate that his company print “made from genetically modified corn” on his yogurt cups.
      Keep up your great work!

  • gmoeater

    Gary Hirschberg — a shill for organic hypocracy.

  • Peter Kleiss

    I have contacted a few food companies, both organic and non-organic, asking for clarification on their “natural flavorings.” In every case that I got a response, I was told that the ingredients were basically a trade secret. However, just because there are dubious entities working under the organic banner doesn’t mean there aren’t dubious entities working under the GMO banner.

  • Sterling Ericsson

    I understand the point of using the anti-GMO people’s own arguments about such ingredients against them and I am completely on board with doing so.

    However, I would also prefer it if you would still debunk their claims about the same ingredients, rather than just leaving the statements in the same fearmongering state that anti-GMO people use them.

    We’re not benefiting anyone by contributing to fear about food products.

    • Julie Kelly

      Hi – I certainly don’t want to create more baseless fear about food. I hesitated about including the carrageenan reference to avoid just that, which is why I followed up a caveat.

      I do think exposing their hypocrisy must be done using their terms. Hirshberg is a shameless, dangerous fear-peddler, tying GMOs and glyphosate to a host of health woes – particularly child illnesses – to scare mothers. He deserves big time pushback even if it stirs up a little fear on this side. If it’s presented correctly, I think you can expose their fear campaign without creating more.

      Thanks for your feedback.
      Julie

  • The real story here is that Hirshberg is a hypocrite because he knows better than anyone that a whopping 43% of all organic food sold in America tests positive for prohibited pesticides! And, further, that a whopping three-quarters of all organic food is imported from countries like China, all without a single field test to ensure it’s genuine.