Doug Porter doesn't want to be an alarmist, but there is bad stuff in the food supply.
He's not talking about things like trans fats, sugar, salt or monosodium glutamate — the types of ingredients that manufacturers have tried to replace in order to provide healthier choices to consumers or to meet stricter nutritional guidelines by the federal government. He's also not talking about ingredients that have a "generally recognized as safe" designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but have raised the hackles of consumer groups who think the additives have a negative impact on consumers.
In fact, he isn't talking about anything that appears on a label.
He's talking about the universally regarded bad stuff, like arsenic, lead, BPA, antibiotics. The nonprofit group for which he is chairman of the board, the Clean Label Project, is testing food items in a lab for 130 substances that just shouldn't be there and posting a listing of the purest products online.
How did those substances get into food? Clean Label Project isn't sure. Do manufacturers know about them? Not necessarily. Are items unsafe to consume? It isn't Clean Label Project's place to make that sort of determination.
"The end result is a cleaner food supply for everybody. That is our stated vision," Porter told Food Dive. "If you look at the progress that has been made in the last decade or two on non-GMOs and organics, this is another step in that process. We think every consumer should know what's in their food [and] make informed choices."
Clean Label Project released its first analysis of popular baby food items last month. And its hoping that the analysis proves popular and helps to revolutionize and redefine the concept of clean labels.
"We want to be a positive change for good," Porter said.
Who is Clean Label Project?
The group is a nonprofit that was founded two years ago as a community of people all concerned with food safety and purity. They come from different walks of life, but many are food industry veterans.
Porter, a prolific fundraiser in the nonprofit sector, has not been in the food industry, but spent 11 years as chief executive for Ronald McDonald House Charities in Chicagoland and Northern Indiana. He currently sits on several other boards, including Receptions for Research — the Greg Olsen Foundation, and the Kelli Joy O'Laughlin Foundation. He said that he met up with many of the others through networking in the Chicago area.
Clean Label Project's two directors, Heather Kennedy and Kantha Shelke, have long careers in the industry. Kennedy was the national marketing director for Whole Foods Market. She also worked as a brand manager for Kraft Foods. Shelke is the principal at food science and research firm Corvus Blue, and has been involved in the launch of 100 food and supplement products throughout her career.
The group also has a medical advisory board. It is made up of Shelke, an epidemiologist who has a consulting firm dealing with toxin-free living, an integrative medicine physician with an interest in links between toxicity and chronic disease, and a pediatrician who works in integrative medicine.
The group is capitalizing on both the question of what's really in food as well as the momentum to increase transparency through initiatives like the new federal GMO labeling law, the revamped Nutrition Facts panel, and the Food Safety Modernization Act. Consumer trends toward less processed food and "clean labels" also reinforce their timing.
"It just came to our attention through the analytical side that what was in our food … and once we discovered and uncovered some stuff that concerned us, it's not on the label, it's not on any easily findable public data, we decided that we should really learn more and let consumers know,” Porter said,
Right now, Porter said, they have been funded by some private donations. They're operating "on a shoestring," he said, though they are hoping for funds from foundations, grants and individuals who are passionate about purity in the food supply.
However, to maintain objectivity, he said they will not accept money from food manufacturers.
"Not at this time or any time in the foreseeable future," he said.
What do they do?
Clean Label Project has a scientific and controlled process, designed to keep outside influence or bias from impacting results.
"We adopted a very conservative approach," Shelke, director of the Clean Label Project, told Food Dive. "… Science is constantly evolving, and we're learning along with it."
Clean Label Project started by analyzing baby food, since that is a segment that both consumers and manufacturers want to be as pure as possible. To get their specimens, they went to grocery stores and purchased 628 products that are in the top 90% of items sold.
Next, they worked on looking through the reported ingredients and compositions of each product. Shelke said they looked at normal levels of different substances, as well consumer concerns to come up with custom algorithms for the baby food sector to determine what levels of the items would be considered more acceptable.
After figuring out the algorithms, the samples were sent out to labs for chemical analysis. Shelke said the brand names and product types were removed.
"All they knew is they were getting materials," she said. "They had no idea what they were testing. And when the results came out, they were tabulated, again with blind testing."
Clean Label Project's medical advisory board also looked at the results without product names or types — just ingredient listings — to eliminate bias, Shelke said.
While Clean Label Project has the results of those tests, they have not been made public. Porter doesn't plan to ever release any details. Going to the baby food test results on their website shows the top 20% of products, in terms of relative purity. The products that made the top 20%, Porter said, are in alphabetical order and not ranked. There are no listings of the worst products — or even the other products tested.
Shelke and Porter said this is part of their strategy to be informative and not alarming. Clean Label Project's place, they said, is not to categorize food as safe or not. What they want to do is make information available to both manufacturers and consumers. Manufacturers can find out if there are unfavorable substances getting into their products through agricultural, processing, packaging or supply chain processes, and consumers can know which products have the fewest toxins.
Since Clean Label Project is very new, it hasn’t worked much with manufacturers yet. However, Shelke and Porter said that manufacturers can replicate their process and work with Clean Label Project on their findings.
"We hope that the entire industry, whether you're a retailer or a manufacturer or an ingredients supplier joins us in trying to make it better," Porter said.
How do these substances get in food, anyway?
Food companies have worked hard to try to clean up their act. Consumers are increasingly demanding foods that are less processed and with fewer ingredients. And federal and state regulations require products meet certain guidelines.
So it's more than a little jarring to think that arsenic is somehow creeping into food products.
"We're still at the state where we don't know what we don't know," Shelke said.
Determining the source of the unwanted substances is not the goal of Clean Label Project, but Shelke and Porter said there are a variety of ways that they could become incorporated into food.
Shelke said that every aspect of food production has become more industrialized through the years. Every time food touches different aspects of the processing, packaging or transportation process, there are more opportunities for contamination to occur. In farming, she said, agricultural chemicals that were once used but have since been deemed too harsh could still be in the soil.
"We know the end product that is tested for in many cases is unacceptable," Porter said.
This problem, Shelke said, is something that can be solved down the line. Knowing that these substances are in food is the first step to taking steps to remove them.
Redefining "clean label"
Porter said he hopes that Clean Label Project can transform what people associate with clean labels. Instead of thinking about a label that just lists a product's known ingredients, a clean label should also reflect a product's purity.
"The potential here is immense," she said. "The clean label concept, which is mostly ingredients that people can pronounce and understand, and people don't have questions about … it has taken a very new meaning with this information we have put out. It's not just what's on the label, but it's what's in the food."
Having just finished its first big round of tests, Porter said Clean Label Project is assessing what to do next. He said they hope to get input from consumers about the ratings. In focus groups, he said, consumers said they were very interested in knowing what may be in food beyond ingredients listed on the label.
Shelke hopes to work with retailers and manufacturers about taking next steps to let consumers know about the test results and ultimately clean up the food supply. They have just scratched the surface of what can be done, she said.
"If you are looking for job security, there is plenty of work to be done in cleaning up the food supply right now," she said.