Billed as the Erin Brockovich of food, Robyn O’Brien delivered a keynote address at the 2019 Organic Produce Summit that recalled Brockovich’s reforming passion.
Brockovich famously helped win a multi-million 1993 settlement from a California utility relating to drinking water contamination with hexavalent chromium.
While never played by Julia Roberts in a Hollywood movie, O’Brien is the author of the 2017 book “The Unhealthy Truth: One Mother’s Shocking Investigation into the Dangers of America’s Food Supply-- and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself.”
O’Brien said her conservative upbringing in Houston, Texas, didn’t prepare her to be a food activist.
The oldest of four kids, she channeled her energies into the academics, eventually graduating at the top of her class in business school.
O’Brien took a job with a securities firm where she was the only woman on a team that managed $20 billion in assets.
“I covered the food industry, and we met with management teams from Costco, Kroger, Whole Foods, Wild Oats,” she said. “Those management teams, I can remember, they would come through our Texas offices and order up these veggies,” she said. “We had a lot to say about that — and it wasn’t always very nice.”
Covering the financial prospects of food companies was the role she played, but O’Brien didn’t care about food.
That began to change starting in January 2006, when here youngest daughter experienced an allergic reaction to food. The child survived the scare, and O’Brien said she began to educate herself on food allergies, noting that from 1997 until 2007 there was a 265% increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions.
What’s more, she said statistics show that one in three kids have one of the four As - allergies, autism, ADHD or asthma.
“I looked at this data and with four little kids at home under my knee, I thought, what are my odds going to be? What is going on? And why are we only talking about obesity?” she said.
O’Brien said the U.S. spends more on drugs than any other country by a wide margin, yet one in two men, and one in three women that are expected to get cancer in their lifetime.
“Again, I thought why isn’t this the front page of every single newspaper?” she said. From her background as a financial analyst, O’Brien said she learned that health care and disease management take 20 cents of every dollar in the U.S., taking money from investing in innovation and productivity.
“I realized (health care) was becoming a massive drag not just on my family, but on every family companies around the country struggling under the costs, and yet we weren’t talking about the things that mattered,” she said.
O’Brien began tracking food news and found, in October 2006, that the Environmental Protection Agency that year granted a small university in Michigan $440,000 to study whether genetically engineered food cause food allergies.
The scientists explained that since genetically engineered crops were introduced in the 1990s, there had been no research on food allergies and genetically engineered food.
The expansion of genetically modified crops in the 1990s, along with the use of the artificial growth hormone rbGH in dairy cows that started in 1994 (but has since largely stopped), are developments that changed the food supply chain, she said.
Suggesting that agriculture may not need genetically engineered crops, O’Brien said plants genetically modified to resist pests may bring unknown consequences to humans, she said.
“What about this promise that we need GMOs to feed the world?” she said. “According to USDA, and the United Nations, we throw away 30 to 40% of the food that we produce,” she said. “We don’t have a production problem, we have a distribution problem.”
O’Brien said food marketers have a history of putting artificial colors into food marketed in the U.S. while they don’t use artificial colors and genetically engineered ingredients in Europe and other markets.
“And I thought these are our own American companies are making better products for families overseas” she said, “We’re simply saying, 'Value our lives the same way you’re valuing the lives of families overseas.”
O’Brien delivered a Ted Talk on reforming food supply chain in 2011.
“I realized the courage is so contagious,” she said. “When one person is brave enough to stand up and be a voice for change, other people will follow.
She acknowledges the frequent drumbeat from critics who “love to hate” who say that “correlation is not causation.”
However, she said the correlation between the rise of GMO food and allergies and other health outcomes merits investigation. “And the only way to do that is through labeling.”
Today, she said, consumers increasingly want “free from” and organic food, and retailers and food marketers are listening by hedging their portfolio by offering more organic options.
Consumers are also valuing organic food more than ever, she said.
“Kroger, stepped in (during) 2012, with their Simple Truth private label brand and it totally changed the game,” she said. “They went from zero to a billion in revenue in a two year period.”
O’Brien said times are tough on American farms, but partly because many are tied into genetically modified crops that are expensive to grow.
“We have to create change and we have to do it fast,” she said, stating that the U.S. needs to provide more resources to help farmers transition to organic farming.
“We have so much opportunity in front of us to convert the supply chain and it is absolutely going to require all hands on deck,” she said.
O’Brien is the yin to the yang of big food. It may be easy to object to her methods and conclusions but you can’t dispute her passion. And that passion was well received at the 2019 Organic Produce Summit.