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Md. organic firms not worried about California initiative

Owners of small organic businesses in Maryland aren’t fretting about a California ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically engineered ingredients in products like food and clothing because, they say, their products don’t have any ingredients to hide.

Maryland shoppers are “passionate about what they are putting into their bodies,” said Erica Stone, an organizer of the Natural Products Expo East convention that was in Baltimore last week.

Many local business owners have built their companies around this mentality.

“We are transparent, we had to be, because that’s who our client is. Our products are designed for people to trust,” said Nana Anu, chief administrative officer of Botanical Skin Works.

The 10-year-old company, located on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore, sells natural beauty products, including body butter, shampoos and a new makeup line, and was advertising its body soaps at the convention.

The event, held at the Baltimore Convention Center, brought together hundreds of organic businesses from around the world to showcase their products and mingle with distributors.

The proposed California legislation, Proposition 37, would require companies to identify if their products included genetically engineered ingredients on product labels, and has been gaining support in California food markets.

The national demand for product transparency by consumers has driven the growth of organic businesses that produce products free of genetically modified ingredients.

“We spent a lot of money and effort getting organic certification,” said Andrew Buerger, co-founder of B’More Organic. “If you are going to go through all the trouble for your product, and have nothing to hide, show your product, be proud of it.”

The company, which sells yogurt-like drinks made with skyr, an Icelandic yogurt with high protein and low sugar levels, is run by a husband-and-wife team who work from a small farm in Lancaster, Pa., where they manufacture three flavors of skyr smoothies. They pride themselves on being able to label all of their products’ ingredients, none of which are genetically engineered.

But not all small businesses can afford to keep up with California legislation.

“Anything happening in California is going to affect the organic industry,” said Benjamin England, with Live Forever Juice, a consulting firm based in Baltimore that helps small companies meet Food and Drug Administration compliance rules and maneuver the organic market.

If Proposition 37 passes in California, England said, Maryland businesses that sell in the California market might not be able to keep up.

For example, plants used in processed foods like protein bars and cereals sometimes have had their DNA modified in a laboratory, although scientists have yet to find conclusive evidence that modified ingredients are health hazards.

While England doesn’t think similar legislation will move east anytime soon, he worries that Maryland businesses that sell processed foods won’t be able to come up with two separate packaging labels in their budgets, one for California and one for the rest of the country, and might have to stop selling their products in the Golden State, a huge part of the organic market, he said.

Pete Truby, founder of Salazon Chocolate Co., based in Eldersburg, which manufactures salted chocolates, said he isn’t worried about California, yet.

“Maryland is a pretty good place to do business, one of the best places for natural foods,” he said, with the abundance of Wegmans, Whole Foods and farmers markets, and the high demand for organic products.

Truby said he would eventually like to start selling in California, but plans on waiting until he understands the legislation a bit more. Either way, “I know they [genetically modified ingredients] are not in my product, it wouldn’t affect me,” he said.