The U.S. organic market has been growing steadily for the past several years. In fact, USDA reports that
[o]rganic farming has been one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture for over a decade. The U.S. had under a million acres of certified organic farmland when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. By the time USDA implemented national organic standards in 2002, certified organic farmland had doubled, and doubled again between 2002 and 2005. Organic livestock sectors have grown even faster.
Additionally, organic products have gained increasing interest from U.S. consumers within the last decade. The word “organic” itself has become one of the frequently heard buzz words in the food and agriculture industries. More than just a buzz word, though, “organic” is also a clearly defined labeling term under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). Organic labeling indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.Continue Reading...
Many who track FDA's implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) believe that a priority for FDA is Section 105, “Standards for Produce Safety” (FDCA section 419), in particular, the leafy greens regulations.
Farms are exempt under FSMA's produce safety rules if:
(A) during the previous 3-year period, the average annual monetary value of the food sold by such farm directly to qualified end-users during such period exceeded the average annual monetary value of the food sold by such farm to all other buyers during such period; and
(B) the average annual monetary value of all food sold during such period was less than $500,000, adjusted for inflation.
"Qualified End User" is defined as:
(i) the consumer of the food; or
(ii) a restaurant or retail food establishment (as those terms are defined by the Secretary for purposes of section 415) that is located—
(I) in the same State as the farm that produced the food; or
(II) not more than 275 miles from such farm.
The fear among many small farm and "ag-in-the-middle" proponents who are not exempt is that FDA will impose standards similar to those adopted by the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (NLGMA) proponent group. Even the proponent group concedes that "the metrics developed by LGMA are not appropriate in every area and must be modified to address unique risks presented in different regions as well as varying production practices across the country."
Those non-exempt farms who cannot logistically or financially possibly comply with NLGMA metrics should consider the following action steps:
1. Be ready for the rule-making process. Marshal your case why your operation is low risk and should be treated differently from larger-scale operations and for those in California and Arizona the standards were developed for.
2. Start now laying the ground work with your state department of agriculture to seek a state variance for the FDA rules. The FSMA allows that:
A State or foreign country from which food is imported into the United States may in writing request a variance from the Secretary. Such request shall describe the variance requested and present information demonstrating that the variance does not increase the likelihood that the food for which the variance is requested will be adulterated under section 402, and that the variance provides the same level of public health protection . . . .
3. Call your congressional delegation. FDA has significant reporting obligations to Congress, which will have a significant role to play (funding, oversite, etc.) in how the FSMA gets implemented. Start educating your Congress people now on the fears that exist by "ag-in-the-middle" about the produce safety rules.
Our previous blog entry discusses last week's release of the Federal Trade Commission's ("FTC") revised, proposed "Green Guides" generally, discussing how the FTC is focused on "deception" and is not taking a radical departure from the 1998 version (the last version) of the Green Guides. But under the new Guides what are the consequences of the FTC's position on sustainability and third-party certification, especially as it relates to food products? The bottom line is that marketers of sustainable food products should re-evaluate (1) what sustainability claims are made and (2) the benefits of proper third-party certification.
The FTC, in its commentary to the revised, proposed Green Guides, reports that it "is unable to provide specific advice on sustainable as an environmental marketing claim. Unlike other claims we tested, the term contains no cue alerting consumers that it refers to the environment."
Yet the FTC acknowledges that sellers of food (and non-food) products are using the term “sustainable,” and consumer awareness of sustainability issues is growing rapidly. The FTC seems to be leaving itself room for action against marketers of "sustainable" products if it’s clear that consumers are meant to believe that “sustainable” is an environmental marketing claim. And, as discussed in our previous entry, marketers need to be wary of compliance with not only the FTC but also state consumer protection laws, which often reach further than federal law on the marketing of food products.
FTC has also chosen for the first time to address in the Green Guides what it calls "Certifications and Seals of Approval." FTC makes clear that "It is deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product, package, or service has been endorsed or certified by an independent third-party." And, even
"third-party certification does not eliminate a marketer’s obligation to ensure that it has
substantiation for all claims reasonably communicated by the certification."
Food manufacturers and retailers who use a seal or logo to designate sustainability should evaluate whether the seal or logo could be read by the FTC, a consumer or a plaintiff’s lawyer to imply third-party certification or endorsement. In other words, if independent third-party certification isn't used, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it clear to anybody reading your label (FTC, consumers, plaintiffs, bar, etc.) that the claim is only your claim and not a third-party claim?
- Do you have substantiation (i.e., science) to back up any claims of environmental sustainability (whether yours or a third party’s)?
If you as a food manufacturer or seller can't answer both questions affirmatively, your marketing may be a liability. The SC Johnson Company, for example, is the subject of a consumer class action alleging that the company's own "greenlist" certification program was deceptive. Often, the realistic choice may be a) not to market the product as environmentally sustainable or b) to switch to a substantiated third-party certification.
For food, your best choice may be Food Alliance certification, which is now the most comprehensive certification for sustainable food and the gold standard.*
*In the interests of full disclosure, I serve on the non-profit Board of Directors for Food Alliance and am a staunch advocate of the organization.
Take-Aways from November 3 Webinar: Making Good Marketing Claims: Product Labeling Pitfalls, Third-Party Certification and "Green Washing"
Tuesday, November 3, we held our second webinar in a three-part series on bringing sustainable food products to market. Thanks again to our presenters and attendees. The recorded webcast was archived and is accessible at this link. Click here to access a PDF copy of the presentation slides.
Take-aways from the second webinar include:
• With the exception of the FDA’s policy on “natural” claims, it has been silent on “green claims.”
• “Natural” could be hottest claim on the market but is becoming controversial. Food companies should continually monitor the marketplace to see which claims are drawing challenges.
• Food companies should pay attention to consumers union findings regarding eco-label credibility.
• While third-party certification may not help every food business, certification is a tool that supports your brand and your marketing/sales strategy.
• Retail leaders in sustainability, such as Burgerville, aspire for continuity of sustainability in each link in its supply chain.
• To understand the FTC green guidelines companies need to appreciate three key points: substantiation, specificity and qualification.
• To avoid “green washing” issues, food companies need to understand the complex matrix of federal, state, local and foreign statutes, regulations and guidelines governing “green” advertising.
I hope you can join me, Steve Marinkovich from Propel Insurance, my colleague at Stoel Rives, Anne Glazer, and Peter Truitt from Truitt Bros., Inc. on November 17, at 9 am PST, noon EST, (live Twitter feed at #sustainlaw) for the last webinar in the series as we discuss the following:
• Preventing and Dealing with Consumer Fraud, Unfair Trade and False Advertising Claims from Consumers and Competitors
• Real-Life Businesses Approaches to Sustainability, Product Labeling and Marketing
• Coping with Increased Risks of Food-Borne Illness from Local or Small Farm Products
• Insurance Coverage You Need, Think You May Have but Don’t Have or Think You May Want but Shouldn’t GetContinue Reading...
Learn About Who Is Setting Sustainability Standards and How to Make Good Sustainability Claims: Register for the 11/3 Sustainable Foods Webinar
If you haven’t already, register here for the second in a three-part webinar series on environmentally friendly sustainable food products, to be held at 9 am PT, Tuesday, November 3. This installment of the series will focus on sustainability standards, third-party certification and avoidance of “green-washing.”
The webinar will feature:
- FDA regulatory lawyer Ricardo Carvajal from Hyman, Phelps & McNamara;
- Roberta Anderson from Food Alliance, the nation’s leader in setting third-party sustainability standards for food production;
- Alison Dennis from Burgerville, a traditional quick-service restaurant on the cutting edge of sustainability; and
- Advertising lawyer Jere Webb from Stoel Rives.
The webinar is interactive, and those listening live will be able to submit questions. We will strive to answer all questions either during the broadcast or off-line directly with listeners.
If you missed the first installment, you can read about the take-aways and replay the webinar on demand here. The slide deck can be downloaded here.
By Guest Blogger Jere Webb
It is evident that virtually every business now is trying to position itself as being “green”. For a discussion of restrictions on “green advertising”, particularly the FTC’s green ad guidelines (the “Green Guides”), and similar efforts at the state level, see “Green Claims Advertising – What You Can Say and What You Can’t”. The FTC is reviewing the Green Guides and likely will amend them in the near future. For comments submitted in the review process and additional information, see Green Guides.
The newer arena is green trademarks. The United States Patent and Trademark Office is now routinely rejecting, based on descriptiveness, multiword trademarks, that start with or contain the word GREEN. An example is the mark GREEN JOURNEY for hybrid cars. But in the same application, the applicant sought to register for clothing, and the Trademark Office accepted the mark, but with a disclaimer of the word GREEN. It found that the two word mark was merely “suggestive” of clothing, not “descriptive”. See "Green" Trademarks Face Hostile Climate in USPTO.
For an example of a green mark that passed muster, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) recently reversed an examining attorney’s descriptiveness refusal for the mark GREEN INDIGO for clothing, finding it to be an “incongruous” term for clothing and therefore merely suggestive and not descriptive. The case is In re Jones Investment, Inc. (TTAB Jan. 21, 2009.)
The lesson is: If you want to include the word “GREEN” in a trademark, some careful review and advice from a trademark lawyer is in order.
For food sellers interested in promoting a “sustainable” brand and inspiring food safety confidence in their consumers, meet Food Alliance. Food Alliance “is a nonprofit organization that certifies farms, ranches and food handlers for sustainable agricultural and facility management practices.” It bills itself as “the most comprehensive certification program for sustainably produced food in North America.”
I’ve recently joined the Food Alliance Board of Directors (in fact, I’m headed to Portland today for a board meeting). My hope is to assist Food Alliance in becoming more widely accepted and mainstream. Credible third-party certification, such as Food Alliance provides, offers a transparent pathway to sustainability of our food supply and consumer confidence in food safety.
Food Alliance takes a holistic approach that is broader and more dynamic than organic certification, which does nothing to address food contamination from pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria (in fact, many experts believe that organically grown food may be more likely to be contaminated by these pathogens). By way of example, Food Alliance certification standards, among other things, address “soil and water quality,” “ensure the health and humane treatment of animals,” “conserve energy and water,” and “ensure quality control and food handling safety.”
For more on why a holistic, independent third-party certification correlates with food safety (and accompanying consumer confidence), I’d suggest reading this op-ed piece co-authored by Food Alliance Executive Director Scott Exo, which was written earlier this year in the wake of the PCA peanut recall.
Court Rules That Retailers Have No Duty to Investigate Suppliers Compliance with Organic Regulations
An important ruling was issued last week dismissing claims that milk produced by an organically certified dairy and labeled as organic was not really organic. Plaintiffs in the action asserted violations of various states’ laws because they claimed that they paid more for the milk because it was labeled as "organic.”
A federal judge in the Eastern District of Missouri granted a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on a multitude of cases pending against the dairy, various retailers selling the dairy products and others (originally these suits were filed in various federal courts around the country but were consolidated for pretrial purposes by the United States Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation or MDL).
The judge ruled that claims against the dairy were preempted because a “conflict exists between federal and state law” (otherwise known as “conflict preemption”). As explained in the opinion, conflict preemption exists where “a party’s compliance with both federal and state law would be impossible or where state law would pose an obstacle to the accomplishment of congressional objectives.” Here, the court found that for “plaintiff’s claims to succeed, the Court would have to invalidate the regulatory scheme established under the OFPA [Organic Foods Production Act] and NOP [National Organic Program].” The court concluded that if plaintiffs were to prevail “producers would be liable even where fully certified and authorized to use these terms and seals.”
For the retailer defendants, the judge ruled that because plaintiffs’ claims against the dairy are preempted, “the retailer Defendants cannot be liable.” But the court went further and dealt explicitly with the plaintiffs’ claims that the retailers “should have investigated” the dairy’s activities to ensure compliance with the OFPA and NOP. The court rejected these arguments:
The Retailer Defendants did not have any duty to inspect [the dairy’s] facilities, or the facilities of any of their other organic producers. Imposing such a requirement “would place an undue burden on the distributor who is least likely to have access to such information.”
This should be good news for organic retailers. Hopefully, this decision will reduce their legal exposure to consumer labeling claims going forward.
Nobody disputes that consumers have a favorable view of organic certification in foods. Consumers generally believe that organic foods are healthier, and many believe they taste better. Yet, among food scientists, uncertainty prevails as to whether organics are safer, especially raw fruits and vegetables.
Absence of synthetic fertilizers is a primary distinction between organic and non-organic foods. And, from a safety standpoint, the absence of pesticides is the only provable claim that organic foods are healthier. But does the absence of one hazard imply the existence of another?
The prevailing pesticide substitute for organic foods is manure or composted manure. Dangerous pathogens such as E. coli O157 reside in manure. Some guidelines exist for composting manure. Unfortunately, as I learned recently in a presentation by Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez at the University of Minnesota Food Science Department, these guidelines were written a decade ago, before science began to understand the prevalence of E. coli in the environment.
Science now understands that E. coli O157, for example, can persist for years in soil, let alone a more rich environment like manure. In some cases, it may be virtually impossible to rid of an environment of E. coli O157, short of treatment with non-organic substances such as tear gas or asphalt.
Outside of the 2006 spinach outbreak, there have been few food-borne illness outbreaks associated with organic fruits or vegetables. As organic farming continues to grow and detection of food-borne illness increases, the only question is how long it will be until another well-publicized outbreak. When it happens, will consumers continue to believe organic foods are safer? Will the industry be ready with evidence that proves the benefits of organic farming outweigh its risks?