Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is tweeting about his plans “in coming weeks” to “put out more detailed information about what different terms mean on food packaging, to help consumers best use claims like organic, antibiotic free-etc.”

Gottlieb said he wanted to share “a few initial thoughts” because the issues were in the news. As first reported by Meatingplace, that was an apparent reference to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Henry I. Miller, who founded FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. The headline of his opinion piece was “The Organic Industry is Lying to You.”

Miller claims the $47 billion a year organic industry is getting a “pass” from FDA on “blatantly false and deceptive advertising claims.” He points to the Whole Foods website for an example where it boasts that organic foods are grown “without toxic or persistent pesticides.”

“In fact, organic farmers rely on synthetic and natural pesticides to grow their crops, just as conventional farmers do, and organic products can contain numerous synthetic as well as natural chemicals,” Miller wrote.

In another tweet, Gottlieb said FDA and USDA “have distinct roles when it comes to the oversight of organic foods” with USDA “charged with regulating the term ‘organic’ and FDA in charge of the ‘general food labeling compliance and safety issues.’ ”

Gottlieb said together, both FDA and USDA “help ensure the safety of goods people eat, including organic foods, while also providing consumers access to factual information in a product’s label about how the food was produced.”

In making his case, Miller pointed to how Tropicana “gets away with labeling it orange juice “Non-GMO Project Verified,” and Hunt’s labels it canned crushed tomatoes “non-GMO” even though there are no GMO (genetically modified organism) oranges or tomatoes on the market.”

“In fact,” Miller wrote, “absence claims about GMOs are never enforced: I was unable to find a single warning letter or other enforcement action against deceptive ‘non-GMO ‘ labeling.

While the FDA Commissioner promised a review, the Organic Trade Association’s chief Laura Batcha did not wait to strike back. “Miller’s piece reflects his deep bias against organic, and his pattern over the years of misinforming the public through his misleading and inaccurate pieces about organic,” she said in response.

“When we choose products with the USDA Organic label, we are just not choosing a product that is guaranteed not to contain any GMOs, adds” Batcha, who is OTA’s CEO and executive director. “We are choosing a product that has been raised and produced by the most highly regulated and the most transparent sector of our food and agricultural system. No other agricultural system operates under the comprehensive and rigorous set of federal regulations and standards by which organic farmers choose willingly to abide.”

But the debate may just be heating up as C. Dean McGrath, Jr., attorney-at-law and founder of the Washington D.C. firm McGrath & Associates and adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, weighed in.

“While the laws against phony food claims and misleading statements are still enforced in some areas, the FDA and FTC (Federal Trade Commission) now treat one segment of the food and agriculture industry as if the laws do not apply, McGrath wrote Sunday in The Hill, the Washington D.C. political news service. “That’s the $47 billion and growing organic food industry, where misleading health claims about conventional agriculture are almost universal – especially claims against GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, mostly grains.”

“Take, for example,’ he says, ” the seemingly ubiquitous Non-GMO Project butterfly label appearing today on more than 50 thousand products. The Project – much of whose board is drawn from the organic industry – states on its website that its purpose is to help consumers avoid “high risk” products containing GMO ‘contamination.’ To that end, the Project provides, for a hefty price, testing and certification – none of which is government verified — and the right to stick their butterfly on your package.

“The law is clear that food claims made on websites come under FDA’s labeling guidelines. It is also clear that the assertions the project makes on its website should be captured under FTC’s equally strict laws against misleading advertising.”

Others say the same problem exists with those “gluten-free” labels now appearing on countless food products like “popcorn, eggs or chili peppers” that never contained gluten in the first place but pay to use the label as a marketing gimmick.

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