Stonyfield CEO Steps Down To Focus On Advocacy Work

January 13, 2012
The Chicago Tribune

Organic yogurt giant Gary Hirshberg stepped down as Stonyfield CEO Thursday to focus on advocacy work for sustainable food.

Perhaps best known, by face, as the guy who wanted to bring organic to WalMart in the movie “Food Inc,” Hirshberg chose Walt Freese (former Ben & Jerry’s chief) to serve as CEO of the company while he maintains “oversight of Stonyfield’s European sister companies, its new Stonyfield Cafés and the company’s Profits-for-the-Planet program.”

A company statement said that the move will allow “Hirshberg to devote more attention to a variety of local and national political efforts including seeking labeling of genetically engineered foods with the Just Label It campaign and his work on US food and agriculture policy as a Co-Chair of AGree, a DC-based public policy initiative.”

Hirshberg told the Tribune Thursday that the USDA approval of genetically modified alfalfa last year-a move that benefits the biotech industry but, many feel, endangers the integrity of organic alfalfa to feed organic cattle among other uses-was a turning point for him.

That “began for me a period of real soul searching,” he said. “On the one hand I’ve got this phenomenal company that has grown to become a real national brand and force in commerce. But thanks to Citizens United flexing a little bit of muscle and Monsanto, the USDA put through a crop to solve a problem that didn’t even exist,” he says, referring to the fact that alfalfa generally never required pesticides before Monsanto came out with its version.

“My point is that the forces out there who will do serious damage to our health and planet are awfully big and while I love my job, others can sell yogurt just as well as I.”

It’s no coincidence that Hirshberg has made the move during a national election year. He says he expects, and will work to make, the labeling of genetically modified foods a question all candidates have to answer.

“I will be surprised if every congressional candidate isn’t asked if they are for or against a consumer’s right to know,” he said. “By the way, 40 other countries give consumers their rights and they’re not just every trading partner we have in EU, but Japan, Russia, China and Brazil. So when one asks why doesn’t America give its citizens rights to know it’s because these powerful companies do everything they can to prevent people from knowing.”

He noted that since the “Just Label It” campaign launched this fall supporters have sent in more than 500,000 comments to the Food and Drug Administration asking for the “right to know if they are eating genetically modified foods.”

Those half a million comments to the FDA, Hirshberg say, are “more than three times more than have ever come into the FDA for anything in history. So it’s an important time in our country for this issue.”

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