Nell Newman: Defining Natural and Organic
01 Mar, 2010
Growing up as the daughter of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward would have to give a person a pretty unique perspective on life. They were two of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars, who, at the height of their respective careers, moved out of Tinseltown to live and raise their family in Westport, Connecticut, away from the glitter and the noise. Paul Newman was not only one of the hunkiest men—and most talented actors—to ever cross a screen, he was a freethinker who actively spoke out against nuclear arms and the Vietnam War. He supported the environment, civil rights, women’s rights and many other causes for much of his long life.
In 1982, the actor co-founded Newman’s Own, a line of foods that he himself loved and helped to create. Thinking that the company would probably post losses or at best break even, Newman was pleasantly surprised when people around the world took to Newman’s Own products in droves. Since its founding, the company has donated 100 percent of its profits to charity—and as of August 2009, that figure had topped $280 million.
In 1993, Paul’s daughter Nell decided to step up to the plate herself and established a purely organic division of the company, Newman’s Own Organics.
A Natural Introduction
From childhood, Nell had been exposed to natural foods. At their rural Connecticut home, the Newmans had a garden and raised chickens. Nell Newman was taught to cook by her mother and spent many hours fishing with her father. While in college she continued to experiment in the kitchen, and she is still the designated chef when home for family holiday dinners.
Nell attended the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in human ecology. She worked briefly at the Environmental Defense Fund in New York but, preferring a more rural environment, soon moved to northern California. It was there she rediscovered fresh, locally grown food.
“When I was in college, there was not a lot of organic,” Nell told Organic Connections. “It was mostly nasty little wrinkled apples. Eden Foods had some stuff, but there simply wasn’t a lot of fresh organic produce. It was just things being grown in people’s backyards or whatever was wild.
“So I was amazed that, when I moved out here in 1988, there was a Wednesday farmers’ market that had already been there for a couple of years, and as far as I know, it was largely organic. I had never seen anything like it. Then I ate at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant many times. I told my dad, ‘Pop, organic does not have to mean heavy whole wheat!’ I told him there was a world of organic out there that he wouldn’t believe. And then when I was fundraising for a small non-profit, I kept looking at what Pop was doing and thinking, That looks like an easy way to raise money for non-profits. Maybe I should start thinking about doing something a little different. So I came up with this harebrained idea to do an organic division of Newman’s Own and see if we could make a go of that. And it’s done pretty well.”
Indeed it has. Beginning with a line of pretzels, the company—with the motto “Great tasting food that happens to be organic”—has expanded to include chocolate bars, Fig Newmans, Champion Chip Cookies, chocolate cups, Newman-O’s, Pop’s Corn, Alphabet Cookies, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar, dried fruit, Soy Crisps, Hermits, mints, coffee and Royal Tea. Of course, much more is planned.
The Importance of Defining “Natural”
Along the way, Nell made sure that the products for Newman’s Own Organics were truly organic. More than 70 percent of all ingredients used in the formulation of Newman’s Own Organics foods are organic, and all products are certified by Oregon Tilth, a leading organic certifier, following strict guidelines laid down by the USDA on organic production.
Nell has recently discovered just how important such stipulations are—and how necessary it is for retailers to help educate consumers to watch for them. As it turns out, it is equally important for products labeled “all natural.”
“I saw an article the other day saying that Eden Foods had put out a call for having a standard for ‘all natural,’ which I thought was real interesting because there isn’t any,” Nell said. “I now know how important that is. I was home about a month ago, and my mom’s housekeeper had gone out to buy a brand of soy milk that my mother has been drinking for years. She thought she was buying the right stuff, but when she brought it back I looked at the box and I thought that it looked like their organic product. But on closer inspection, it wasn’t. It turns out they now have a line of organic and a line of conventional, but the original product has the same packaging; so unless you look, you won’t know.
“Our housekeeper also bought for me what was labeled ‘16-grain bread,’ and I thought that was really impressive. But then I looked at the packaging, and the ingredients listed were whole wheat, oats, corn syrup, barley malt—basically it had 2 or 3 grains and a bunch of filler. At the very bottom the label stated that there was ‘no more than 2 percent of the following’ and it listed the other 13 grains. It was mind-boggling! Basically wheat and filler. The consumer knows what the consumer wants, but the consumer doesn’t always know what to look for. I think the retailer has a big responsibility to not just sell products but to sell good products. It’s frustrating when you realize that you’ve bought the wrong thing because you weren’t paying attention, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.”
Like a number of other top food activists today, Nell is also speaking out on a matter many consider dangerous, and one which a lot of consumers are unaware of because the law doesn’t require labeling: the genetic modi-fication of crops. Not long ago, she wrote an excellent foreword to Andrew Kimbrell’s book Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food.
“It’s clear to me that a handful of chemical corporations have rushed gene-altered foods into our fields and supermarkets without conducting the science needed to demonstrate the safety of these foods for our children, the environment and us,” Nell observed. “In fact, independent studies coming in from universities and government agencies, both here and abroad, demonstrate the hazards that these biotech foods can present to our health and to the natural world.”
A major part of the problem that genetic engineering represents—especially to organic farmers—is cross-contamination. “Initially the party line from chemical companies was ‘There will be no problem. The pollen only blows three feet. There will be no genetic crossing.’ And of course they were wrong about that,” said Nell. “It does happen and it’s something that organic farmers have to deal with—hopefully not too often, but it is a problem. And it is a problem because organic farmers are out there working as hard as they can to grow a crop that has not been contaminated, and processors work as hard as they can to process that crop into an uncontaminated product, and they’re doing everything possible. But the cross-contamination is sometimes out of their hands. It becomes a very expensive proposition for the organic farmer to make sure that nothing is contaminated.”
In support of her statements, Nell points to a lawsuit recently won by the Center for Food Safety in which, for the first time in history, a court ordered the halting of plantings of a new genetically engineered crop. In 2007, a US District Court in California ruled that the USDA illegally approved genetically modified alfalfa without first preparing a full Environmental Impact Statement taking into account the contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa. Monsanto, the defendant in the case, appealed twice. CFS defended its victory and in June 2009 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision, denying both of Monsanto’s appeals, thus upholding a two-year-old nationwide ban on the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa.
As to why the government allows genetically modified crops to continue without testing, Nell—like many of us—suspects some “insider” work with the government. “I always wondered why,” she said. “It seems to be such common sense and yet nothing appears to be happening. Then about five or six years ago, I read an article in Mother Jones and realized exactly why it’s so hard to get something done about it. In this article, they actually followed the heads of all these big biotech companies as they left their jobs and went to work for the government and wrote policy and then went back to their former positions. It’s a flowchart; it was an amazing article. For example, they worked for Monsanto and then they worked for the USDA and then they wrote food policy for two years and then they went back to Monsanto. After that, I understood why it was so hard.”
Nell advises all of us who are in the know to keep ourselves informed and to keep others informed as well. “I think doing your homework, educating yourself about organics and the issues around them, is very important so that you can become an educated consumer. You can also join a non-profit that you think is actually doing a good job in terms of helping regulate these issues. The Center for Food Safety is a great one, and there are others. You can also pressure your local congressmen to consider this a matter of importance. Without a doubt food safety is a big concern these days and you could certainly consider this a food-safety issue.”
The Growing Market
“I believe, on a consumer level, interest in sustainably grown food is really increasing, which is indicated by the growth of farmers’ markets. People are more interested in where their food is coming from and are willing to go that little extra bit to find it. It is an opportunity to get fresher produce directly from the source. I also think that trend will help promote growth by having the buyer’s dollar go directly to the farmer, and we’ll continue to see an increase in farmers’ markets and more ability to buy on a local level.”
For more information on Newman’s Own Organics, please visit www.newmansownorganics.com.
To learn more about the Center for Food Safety and their continuing work, visit www.truefoodnow.org.