Tradeshow organizer defends presence of companies with unnatural GMO-derived products, saying they want natural products community to choose for themselves the products that make sense for their customers.
Brave Robot promoted its ice cream made from Perfect Day’s synbio proteins. Motif FoodWorks offered samples of its GMO-derived “Hemami” meat alternative. Other synbio company exhibitors were Pipette sunscreens and personal care products, Betterland Foods’ milk product also made with Perfect Day’s synbio animal-free whey protein, and Remilk dairy products, among others. There were an estimated 10 GMO 2.0 companies exhibiting at Expo West.
Patrick Sheridan, president and CEO of the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA), says the consensus among his group’s member retailers—a key target market of Expo West—was that synbio companies don’t belong at a natural food show.
“We’re trying to curb the expansion of GMOs in our food system but food start-ups are getting into Expo using smart marketing campaigns that aren’t transparent.”
Encourage robust debate”
New Hope’s director of market integrity Shelley Sapsin says retailer concerns “matter very much to us” and that “asking hard questions about GMO-derived ingredients is appropriate.” But she also says that New Hope provides a forum to discuss topics like “precision fermentation” and”‘GMO 2.0.”
“Rather than banning businesses and closing down debate we’ve chosen to encourage robust dialogue,” she said. “And most importantly, we provide a place for the natural products community to choose for themselves the products that make sense for their customers.”
New Hope Network allows these companies to exhibit as long as they don’t make “natural” claims—a low bar to clear.
Sapsin said New Hope has spent a lot of time focused on its standards.
“We’ve added a section to our application process that asks directly about synthetic processing so we can more effectively monitor the use of the term ‘natural.’ We’ve addressed which kinds of claims are allowable when applied to new technologies.”
Lack of transparency
One of the biggest complaints from Expo West attendees and retailers was that the GMO 2.0 companies weren’t transparent about their use of GMO technologies like synthetic biology.
“They are hiding behind a lack of transparency,” said Mark Squire, co-owner of Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, California. “New Hope needs to understand these GMO 2.0 products have a whole new set of problems attached to them and no regulations.”
“Transparency is the number one priority; that’s why certifications (such as organic and Non-GMO Project Verified) were created,” Sheridan said. “Transparency can go deeper on the label and better at the show.”
Sapsin says that transparency is a priority for New Hope and that “determining whether a product has detectable GMOs or was GMO-derived is particularly important to our community.”
But the synbio companies at Expo West weren’t transparent. When I stopped by several synbio company booths, including Brave Robot, Motif FoodWorks, and Pipette, there was no mention of the use of genetic engineering or even “precision fermentation” in the company’s signage or literature. Squire says if the companies had been transparent about their use of GMOs, the attendees probably would have kept walking past their exhibits.
Denies promoting synbio technologies
Another criticism was that New Hope helped promote GMO 2.0 technologies. Two speakers in the show’s lead keynote presentation, Kathryn Peters, executive vice president at Spins, and Scott McCoy, of Whipstitch Capital, spoke about the need for lab-based protein sources and cell-cultured meat to feed a growing world population.
“New Hope talked a big game about transparency at Expo West, but required none and promulgated several public deceptions in support of syn-biotech,” said Alan Lewis, vice president of government affairs, stakeholder relations, and organic compliance at Natural Grocers.
Sapsin denied that New Hope was promoting synbio technologies. “What we do is try to offer an environment in which the community has access to information, can ask questions when there is a lack of information, can judge and buy products based on the values best suited to their natural products businesses, and can debate some of the newest and most controversial topics in the industry.”
The problem, according to a Forbes article by Michele Simon, an attorney and strategy consultant for the plant-based foods, is that many of the retailers attending Expo West may not be up-to-date on the latest biotechnologies deployed by synbio companies.
“By allowing products that clearly are not (natural), New Hope is not serving retailers in an honest way,” she wrote.
The controversy over GMO 2.0 companies exhibiting at Natural Product Expo West is likely to continue as more synbio companies—seeing the opportunity to ride the coattails of the billion-dollar natural products industry—exhibit at the show. And if it continues, Squire said the show’s name should change.
“I think New Hope shouldn’t allow them on the show floor. Either that, or they should take ‘natural’ out of the Expo name.”
Organic & Non-GMO Insights June 2022