Yogurt Tycoon Tackles GMOs

Stonyfield’s Gary Hirshberg has a new mission: Get the government to label genetically modified foods.

Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield farms
Former Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg wants you to know what you’re eating. He recently turned over day-to-day operations of the company to devote his energy to the Just Label It Campaign. (Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Please welcome our new contributor, Barry Estabrook. A two-time James-Beard-Award-winning journalist, Estabrook is the author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. He was a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, Men’s Health, Saveur, Gastronomica, TheAtlantic.com and other national magazines.

The healthy food movement just got a CE-Yo.

Gary Hirshberg, the head of Stonyfield Farm, announced that he was turning the operation of the Londonderry, New Hampshire- based organic yogurt company over to Walt Freese, who has held executive positions at Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington, Vermont, and Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colorado.

Hirshberg (who called himself CE-Yo at Stonyfield) is staying with the company as chairman, but will give up day-to-day operations to focus on the Just Label It Campaign, a year-old effort to convince the government to require foods containing genetically modified (GMO) ingredients to be labeled.

He is pulling back after 28 years. “I could have been happy running Stonyfield for another 20 years,” Hirshberg said in an interview. But it was impossible to run the company and give Just Label It the attention it demanded. “I was getting stretched too thin.”

Just Label It will file a petition with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this spring. To date, 540,000 consumers have signed the petition and Hirshberg’s goal is to have one million signatures.

According to Hirshberg, 93 percent of Americans feel they have the right to know if food they buy is bioengineered. Given a choice, shoppers avoid GMO products—which is exactly why the chemical industry has fought labeling.

GMO labeling is required in 50 countries, including the European Union, Japan, Australia, and even Russia and China. “That American consumers don’t have rights granted to Chinese citizens is getting to the point of absurdity,” said Hirshberg.

By law, the FDA must declare a food label misleading if it omits “material” information. But, bowing to pressure from agribusiness, the FDA says that “material” means something that can be detected by the senses—taste or smell. For instance, the flesh of GMO salmon doesn’t differ in eating quality from conventional farmed salmon, which is why the FDA is considering it for final approval.

“The reason this is the time to act is that if even a few more GMO approvals go through, it will be too late to stop. And once the genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put back,” said Hirshberg.

The breaking point for Hirshberg came last year when the government approved GMO alfalfa, a forage crop fed to cows. “As an organic dairy guy, I was heartbroken,” said Hirshberg. Particularly galling, he said, was that there was little demand from farmers for GMO alfalfa.

“Getting it approved was just one small step in the chemical industry’s well-conceived and long-term strategy to use biotech to increase sales,” he said.

Just before Christmas, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed to deregulate corn that has been engineered by Dow Chemical Co. to survive 2,4-D, a compound found in the notorious herbicide Agent Orange. “It was a diabolical step,” said Hirshberg. “These are some of the most toxic chemicals ever released on the planet. Hundreds of thousands of birth defects have been tied to them.”

“In Washington, they are hearing from only one side. There are chemical company lobbyists at every hearing about food policy. Companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars influence politicians.” said Hirshberg. “And advocates for healthy foods have to accept some blame. They have not focused on coordination and organization.”

Having built Stonyfield from a seven-cow enterprise into a $400-million corporation, Hirshberg knows something about coordinating and organizing. It also helps that he is good friends with President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. And in an election year, a petition with a million signatures on it will resonate with all office seekers.

But Hirshberg hasn’t given up his job just to send a petition. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” he said.

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