For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's All About Organics page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.
With a “mind for business and a passion for organics,” Aaron and Erica Gottlieb, founded Jacksonville, Fla.-based Native Sun in 1996. Opening their own store was the logical next step after Aaron first became interested in the relationship between food choices and his own health, and later worked at a natural food store.
Today, Native Sun has two locations in Jacksonville. And a reputation for providing customers with carefully researched nutrition information, and high-quality organic products.
But it was the Native Sun’s strict non-GMO policy that earned it a place on the Organic Consumers Association’s Top Right to Know Grocers List.
Soon after the birth of their first child, the Gottliebs realized that they needed to educate their customers about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“Concerned about the potential presence of GMO’s in our food supply during our first couple of years of business, I took a preventative non-GMO stance based on the desire to limit my family’s and my customers’ exposure to genetically modified ingredients,” said Aaron.
Initially, the store was on its own in trying to determine if products they were purchasing contained GMOs. The Non-GMO Project, an outgrowth of the 2003 “People Want to Know” campaign, didn’t come along until later.
“Around 2001, GMOs became a concern in the industry, and we became aware of the health concerns and the lack of labeling,” said Aaron. “We started inquiring about the presence of GMOs in the products we stocked.”
The task of reviewing the store’s products for GMO ingredients was made easier because Native Sun carries a large selection of organics (certified organic products are not allowed to contain GMOs). But the Gottliebs committed to the slow process of reviewing all non-organic products that could potentially be contaminated with GMOs.
“At first I did all the research myself, conducting question-and-answer sessions with manufacturers as we added new products,” said Aaron. “We accepted a product if the manufacturer sourced all ingredients from non-GMO sources or tested their product for GMOs. We would question manufacturers on ingredients, from soy lecithin to cornstarch.”
Native Sun’s strict purchasing standards go well beyond whether current and potential products may contain banned ingredients. For instance, the Non-GMO Project doesn’t take into consideration antibiotics when evaluating products. “When investigating, we realized that the Non-GMO Project does not consider the use of antibiotics a concern when evaluating products. “We still check for these ingredients on our own even if it has a Non-GMO Project label on it,” said Aaron.
Today, Native Sun has five staff dedicated to product research. They hold regular meetings to review new ingredients and discuss inert ingredients and their sources. They also maintain a handbook of allowed, and banned, ingredients. The list of banned ingredients goes well beyond GMOs, and includes includes chemically processed starches, titanium dioxide, grades of carrageenan, and caramel color, to name a few.
“We do not claim to be 100 percent GMO-free, but we are striving to get there,” said Aaron. “I believe we have the cleanest grocery selection in the country and we are constantly evaluating our standards to make them stronger. If we can find a new way to keep GMOs out, then we do it.”
On GMOs . . .
Q. When did your store decide to take action to protect your customers from GMOs?
A. When we opened our doors in 1997, our focus was on organic options. GMOs were already being used by food manufacturers, but there wasn’t’ much public awareness yet. Over the last 15 years, as GMOs have become increasingly prevalent in our food supply, they’ve also become a topic of debate in the mainstream media. But even before then, in 2001 when no one was talking about GMOs, we were already researching them and educating ourselves, and our customers.
Q. How did your store's GMO education, labeling and purchasing policies and practices come about?
A. Early on, we determined that consistent, proactive research was the best way to monitor GMOs. So we created a research team and developed the extensive standards that today dictate Native Sun’s education, labeling and purchasing policies. Our research team consists of Ginny Nehring (Director of Food Allergy and Standards Research), Meghan Koontz (Local and Direct foods Buyer), Sheri Sing (Director of Purchasing) and myself.
Our review process works like this. If there are new ingredients to review, or if there is an ingredient that my buyers have not seen before, or a significant increase in the use of an ingredient, Ginny researches the ingredient, then meets with me.
We send a letter to all of our vendors addressing major GMO contamination and asking them to verify that their soy, corn, cottonseed, canola, etc. are GMO-free. The letter addresses potential contaminants, down to modified starches and milk powders. We also address ingredients that the National Organic Program and Non-GMO Project do not. For example, when the Non-GMO project first came to be, we discovered that it didn’t address rBGH (a growth hormone used in dairy). While we love what the Non-GMO Project is doing, and we support its mission, we need to maintain our own, sometimes stricter, standards.
Q. What has been the most difficult aspect of keeping GMOs out of your store?
A. Our dependence on a flawed regulatory system and a glaring lack of defined industry standards leaves us at the mercy of the information we receive from manufacturers. The industry ebbs and flows with compromising standards.
During the recession, our review process uncovered an increase in GMOs, and we found we could not stop the flow of inert ingredients, such as starches and lecithins, entering the food supply. We saw it happening and could not fix this problem in processed foods. We knew that this 1 percent was potential contamination but could not stop it. We worked hard to educate manufacturers. The problem eventually faded, and the quality of inert ingredients improved.
We are constantly working to ensure that our information remains current and that the products on our shelves meet our standards.
Q. Please share your thoughts about GMOs and livestock feed as they relate to your local and regional meat and dairy producers.
A. We stock organic and grassfed beef, organic fresh pork and natural and organic poultry. We understand that animal feed cannot be guaranteed non-GMO unless it is organic. In 2006, our desire was to move away from natural poultry products and transition to organic. Customer feedback was positive and our efforts were appreciated, but the price increases were too great for a majority of our shoppers. In order to offer our customers an affordable product, we are left with little choice but to accept this simple truth and do our best to communicate openly with manufacturers in the hope of finding a solution.
We’ve been searching for local farms to provide natural meats and poultry that are able to guarantee they only use 100-percent non-GMO feed, and we’ve listened as small-scale farmers explain how difficult it is for them, financially, to use non-GMO feed. If a company or small family farm committed to humanely raising chickens has the right mission, but a lack of funding, we find it hard to place the blame on them. If we don’t support these small companies as they work to clean up their products and improve our food supply, we will be left without any affordable alternatives to animal products filled with antibiotics, hormones, chemicals and nitrates, in addition to being fed a diet of nothing but genetically modified grains.
Q. Please share a few success stories in getting manufacturers to remove or replace GMO ingredients in their products.
A. We continually revise our standards sheet to make it easier for the manufacturers to navigate. We also speak to them at tradeshows and on the phone and develop relationships with their quality assurance team. We follow up with manufacturers every six to 12 month. If it is a company like Eden Foods, we know that Michael Potter will not be compromising GMO standards, and feel that every six months is cumbersome and unnecessary. In the case of a new manufacturer that might be trying but needs a little push to remain non-GMO, we follow up more frequently. In addition, if customers, or industry insiders question a standard or ingredient that we’ve accepted, we bring it back to review. Our purchasing department keeps a binder with the answers to all of our standards for use when reviewing new items. If we see a questionable ingredient, we know to review it, and if there are potential GMO ingredients, then we send that item to review.
When asked by General Mills if I would carry Cheerio’s I said I would. They asked why others were resistant. I said my only concern was whether it was GMO-free. They laughed and said that it was not. I said how about an organic Cheerio. They laughed again. Ninety days later they showed me the prototype for Cascadian Purely O’s, the organic version of Cheerio’s. This along with Honey Nut’s O’s became top sellers around the country.
When a local company comes to us with a request to stock its products, we often find that they don’t know how to label properly, and they don’t understand GMOs. We sit with them and review their product, and advise them on where to buy non-GMO ingredients. Typically, they comply, and then we’re able to bring their products into our stores.
If there are potential GMOs, we educate them as to where and what options they have. If it is a label issue, we instruct them how to do it legally. We recently brought in a local food company that bought only certified organic ingredients, but the product wasn’t itself certified. Their package claimed that the product was organic. We informed them that we loved their commitment, but we couldn’t bring them in until they were certified or took the word organic off of the name of the product and listed the ingredients as organic. They complied and our now on our shelf. Most of the time the main issue is the oils and most companies are willing to switch to suppliers that are not in question.
From tempeh, gluten-free cookie dough, energy bars, to granola we have addressed all ingredients from each supplier.
In one instance, a large flour manufacturer had informed us in writing that the milk powders they used were GMO (rBGH) free. When this claim was found to be incorrect, the staff of that company went to their boss to replace the ingredient with one that was rBGH free.
In another example, we not only waited for Immaculate Baking to be Non-GMO Project Certified, we also waited until rBGH was removed from the dairy in their dough before letting them on the shelves.
Q. What customer feedback has your store received about your GMO policies/practices?
A. Our customers rely on our standards and non-GMO policy to guide their eating habits. We often receive positive feedback from customers who were unaware of the research and review process that facilitates our purchasing. We believe that we have the strictest non-GMO policy in the country, and we know that our customers choose us based on our commitment to the highest quality standards.
Q. What tools could OCA or the Natural Foods industry provide that would be most helpful in assisting your store or other grocers in keeping GMOs out of the food supply?
A. In addition to GMO labeling, we would love to see the introduction of affordable non-GMO feed for small farming operations.
Q. What would you like to tell other grocers contemplating taking action(s) to keep products with GMO ingredients off of their shelves?
A. Support companies that recognize the presence of genetically modified ingredients in their products and work with them as they transition to non-GMO ingredients. If we do not support companies that are working diligently to improve their products, we will be left without any affordable food options that are not filled with controversial ingredients.
On store mission and values . . .
Q. What makes your store special in the competitive natural foods marketplace?
A. First and foremost, we believe that our standards set us apart from other stores. All of our produce is 100 percent organic and our meats come from grassfed animals raised in open environments, without hormones, antibiotics, nitrates/nitrites, additives or steroids. Our beef is 100 percent grassfed and not grain finished. I would say around 85-90 percent of the meats we sell are 100- percent grass fed. We sell only grassfed steaks and we have organic (not 100- grassfed) ground beef as well as our grassfed ground beef.
We support the CleanFish Alliance, verifying that our wild fin-fish are hook-and-line caught, and that our shellfish are harvested using sustainable methods. Our poultry comes from animals raised in open-air environments on a diet of natural or organic feed without antibiotics or additives. We are proud to offer pasture eggs in addition to our organic and free-range offerings. All of our fresh eggs are antibiotic- and hormone-free. All of our dairy products are rBGH/rBST growth hormone-free and antibiotic-free and are sourced from animals fed natural or organic diets of grass and grains. Grocery items are free of high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, added sulfites, MSG, artificial colors, flavors and/or dyes. We also request Country of Origin for honey, source of carrageenan, mono and di-glycerides and caramel coloring, which are controversial ingredients.
To confirm that our standards are met, we write every manufacturer to obtain written statements regarding the quality of the raw materials used in their products. We ask about grades of Carrageenan, to how the starches are made.
People have to remember that all of this is already deemed GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) by our government, so it’s difficult to find unbiased information and we are doing this alone. We have had bans on farmed fish, titanium dioxide, phosphoric acid, and then had to modify our policies because we were scaring people away. We find product that meets our standards, or find enough research to calm ourselves down and make adjustments. We don’t compromise our mission. But there are so many new ingredients entering the food stream that we are trying to keep our customers safe and our food supply clean.
We also cater to the allergen world with our own unique color-coded tagging system and offer free educational tours to those customers with special diet needs.
Q. Please share with OCA readers your store's mission and values.
A. We believe that everyone has the right to know and understand the ingredients and manufacturing processes used to create the foods they eat and the products they purchase. Relying on the strength of our research and education enables us to foster the growth of a community armed with the knowledge to make informed food choices.
Q. How does your store express these values through your purchasing policies?
A. Our product standards, and our desire to serve as a resource for an ever-growing community of shoppers making informed food choices, dictate our purchasing policies. Although we are a retail business, our product selection reflects our determination to provide our customers with only the most nutritious options. We emphasize personal health over potential profit.
Q. What are your store’s short-term goals? Five-year goals (if different)?
A. Our goals are to continue providing the highest quality products available while developing ourselves as a resource for those transitioning to an organic lifestyle. We hope to strengthen our relationships with manufacturers who are working to clean up their products, furthering our efforts in the fight against GMOs and other controversial ingredients.
In addition, we would like to grow the GMO awareness in local food sources such as restaurants, and manufacturers. We would like to help the people in the communities where our stores are located find and support other businesses that support a GMO-free lifestyle, and the consumer’s right to know.
Q. What would you like OCA to tell Monsanto and its GMO allies on behalf of your store/ and customers?
A. We would like Monsanto and its GMO allies to understand our unwavering commitment to clean foods and our desire to maintain the integrity of organics. We will never give up our search for the highest quality products, and we will continue to be very vocal in our support of the consumers’ right to know, and right to choose. We will also continue to offer our support to the local and family farms that are often destroyed by the big business of GMO crops.
Personally speaking . .
Q. What aspect(s) of retailing do you find most enjoyable/most gratifying?
A. Helping customers understand their choices. We aren’t here to tell people what to do. We’re here to show people that they are in control of their choices. We are not trying to offer what traditional natural food stores offer (a blend of GMO and on GMO foods). We are giving people the ability to choose the cleanest groceries our country has to offer. Letting this message out gives me the most gratification.
Q. How did you get interested in natural foods retailing?
A. In 1996, motivated by the power of proper diet and healthy food choices, my wife Erica and I opened Native Sun. We envisioned ourselves as “health educators” determined to bring chemical free, nutrient dense vegetarian based foods to our local community. Our hope was to improve our own lives as well as the lives of our customers with the introduction of a store committed to the community and focused on simple, healthy foods. Over the course of the last 16 years, Native Sun has grown to include a Juice Bar, Meat Department, Deli, Salad Bar, Prepared Foods, Gluten-Free Bakery, Supplements and Health & Beauty Department while remaining true to the standards and values that define us.
Q. What keeps you in the business?
A. The loyalty of our customers and our employees. People love the taste of the food we create and back us because our standards go beyond what others are doing.
Q. What else would you like us to know about your store?
A. We believe in what we do. Our standards guide us through all departmental decisions.
Our juice bar only uses organic fruits and vegetables. All other ingredients are organic or GMO-free.
We sell only wild sustainable fish and/or fish from CleanFish Alliance-approved farms. Our beef is either local or certified organic.
Our deli only uses organic veggies and fruit. All other ingredients are either organic or GMO free.
We are constantly working on new areas as the GMO issue is so difficult to navigate. We will continue to put our heads together to improve our methods.