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Milk, salads, kitty litter, condoms: 'Non-GMO' labels sow confusion

Milk, salads, kitty litter, condoms: 'Non-GMO' labels sow confusion
Cartons of milk packaged at the Clover Sonoma dairy plant bear the non-GMO label, signifying they do not contain genetically modified organisms. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Clover Sonoma dairy has long cultivated a dual image of folksy kitsch and foodie trend-spotting.

While its cartoon mascot, Clo the Cow, cracked tortured puns on billboards along U.S. 101, the Bay Area’s top milk supplier touted its small-scale farms in the dwindling grasslands of California’s northern coast.

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Clover Stornetta, as the Petaluma-based processor was known until this year, was among the first dairies to ban growth hormones — now virtually absent from the national dairy herd. It also was a West Coast leader in adopting organic feeds nearly 20 years ago.

So, as Clo might say, it behooved the newly rebranded Clover Sonoma to jump into the accelerating trend of labeling products as free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which some consumers fear could cause health and environmental damage, despite firm rebuttals from the country’s top scientific and medical organizations.

In April, the first half-gallons of milk from cows that ate no GMO feed rolled off Clover Sonoma’s production lines and right onto a metaphoric shelf shared with GMO-free kitty litter, salt and condoms.

The move did not go unnoticed by the industry or agricultural scientists.

The National Milk Producers Federation launched a “peel back the label” campaign this summer, aimed squarely at a growing list of dairy products like Clover’s GMO-free milk.

Marcus Benedetti, chief executive of Clover Sonoma, says the the non-GMO move was consistent with how the company brands its dairy products.
Marcus Benedetti, chief executive of Clover Sonoma, says the the non-GMO move was consistent with how the company brands its dairy products. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s really trying to market a distinction without a difference,” said Jim Mulhern, president of the federation, whose members produce half the nation’s milk.

“It’s like unicorn-free milk,” said Alison L. Van Eenennaam, a UC Davis animal genomics scientist. “There aren’t any GMOs in milk anyway.”

Already, Mann Packing, a produce company in the Salinas Valley, more than 140 miles south of the Clover Sonoma’s headquarters, opted this month to remove its GMO-free labeling, saying it causes confusion about products that never were modified in the first place.

“We don’t want to perpetuate the fear,” said Gina Nucci, the company’s director of marketing. “Nothing that’s grown in Monterey County is genetically modified.”

Marcus Benedetti, chief executive of Clover Sonoma, said the non-GMO move was consistent with how the company brands its dairy products, which have certifications for humane treatment of animals and sustainable practices.

Surveys showed consumers wanted GMO-free milk but did not want to pay the premium price of organic milk, which can reach $8 a gallon, Benedetti said.

And voters had made their views on the issue clear by banning cultivation of GMO crops from nearly every coastal county from San Francisco to Oregon.

“Absent perfect information, consumers wanted an alternative,” said Benedetti. “And their expectation was that Clover would deliver that alternative.”

Since the Food and Drug Administration approved the first genetically modified enzyme in the early 1990s, environmentalists have expressed fear of unforeseen consequences on health, biodiversity, the agricultural economy and food supply.

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Agribusiness giants have modified crops such as corn, soy, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, a squash variety, some potatoes, an apple variety and even a salmon. They have given these foods traits nature didn’t bestow on them — such as enhanced resistance to insects, disease, drought, decay and chemical herbicides.

Milk production at the Clover Sonoma dairy plant in Petaluma. The company's products have certifications for humane treatment of animals and sustainable practices.
Milk production at the Clover Sonoma dairy plant in Petaluma. The company's products have certifications for humane treatment of animals and sustainable practices. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Crafting plants that more readily tolerate the same herbicides these companies also manufacture has been a flashpoint among consumers, who see GMOs as emblematic of an increasingly industrialized food chain controlled by a handful of companies.

But health claims about GMOs have been strongly discredited by scientists, some of whom accuse the largely left-leaning environmental movement of engaging in the same kind of contrarian opposition as those who doubt climate science.

The American Medical Assn. and National Academy of Sciences have said there is no evidence that currently marketed GMOs are any less healthy than their alternatives.

Environmental and food-safety advocates argue that consumers nonetheless have the right to know if their food contains GMOs or ingredients derived from them, such as the oils, sugars, starches and emulsifiers that are ubiquitous in processed foods.

Sixty-four countries have enacted GMO labeling requirements. In the U.S., Vermont began enforcing label requirements last year, while efforts for a similar law are under way in several other states, including California, where a ballot initiative failed last year.

A federal labeling effort ended last year with a compromise that has yet to be implemented by the FDA — embedding GMO information in bar codes on food products.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Non-GMO Project, based in Bellingham, Wash., has put its butterfly emblem on 43,000 products, with annual sales of more than $19 billion. It verifies products based on the source crops — the grass and grains cows eat, or the soy that becomes lecithin.

“When something is labeled non-GMO, it isn’t about the presence of detectable DNA or protein,” said Michael Hansen, chief scientist of Consumers Union, which vetted the Non-GMO Project standards.

“Look, there’s sugar from engineered sugar beets,” Hansen said. “There isn’t any detectable DNA in them, but that’s still derived from genetic engineering.”

Clover Sonoma dairy plant was among the first dairies to ban growth hormones. Though consumers fear foods with GMOs could cause health damage, the country’s top scientific and medical groups refute that claim.
Clover Sonoma dairy plant was among the first dairies to ban growth hormones. Though consumers fear foods with GMOs could cause health damage, the country’s top scientific and medical groups refute that claim. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Hansen believes orange juice fortified with vitamin C — produced via a fermentation process based on corn — could be considered a GMO food.

That approach has resulted in non-GMO labels on kitty litter, Himalayan pink salt, waters (coconut, flavored and “alkaline,” in particular) and condoms.

Even Jeff Hollender, co-founder of Sustain brand condoms, found it hard to explain why his New York-based company’s prophylactics, made of latex derived from sap from a rubber plant, bear the seal of the Non-GMO Project.

“What we’re having certified is that neither the sap nor any of the 12 other ingredients, which are a variety of different chemicals, are GMO,” Hollender said.

Asked what chemicals are GMO, Hollender said, “I’m not a chemist.”

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