Joe Dickson is the absolute authority on quality in the natural foods industry. He helps us break down the different certifications and labels and shares how his new company, Merryfield, is helping people make better choices in the grocery store.
Download the Merryfield app – https://www.merryfield.com/
Check out the non-GMO Project – https://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/non-gmo-project-verified-faq/
Learn about the Environmental Working Group (EWG) – https://www.ewg.org/
Pretty ok transcript:
[00:00:00] Mason: In the natural organic food space. Joe Dixon is a bit of a household name outside that we don’t really know. Are you famous for.
[00:00:08] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Mainly that
[00:00:09] Mason: mainly that, and some goats
[00:00:10] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: we’ll hear about later, some goat farming in production a little bit, but mainly natural food industry.
[00:00:18] Mason: As a background, most of the food world looks to whole foods for their opinion on what is.
Quality and good food. And for the last 15 years, that opinion has been formulated by Joe Dixon’s team in order to be so knowledgeable on the subject. He’s also been involved in many quality projects outside of whole foods, non-GMO project and the certification that goes along with that USD organic standards and the certification that goes along with that.
And others, he recently left whole foods after 20 years and has started a new clean label rewards, loyalty, and new product discovery. Called Merryfield to help consumers navigate the evermore confusing task of reading.
[00:00:59] Jess: like Mason mentioned, you spent your last 20 years at whole foods, which is quite incredible.
So our first question is about your transition from being a marketing manager in the greater Boston area to becoming the director of quality standards in Austin. Can you tell us how that change came about? Seems pretty unorthodox in terms of a career
[00:01:17] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: pivot. It was a very unorthodox pivot.
I almost have to go back to how I got to whole foods. I grew up in the Boston area. I went to college in the Hudson valley. I studied neuroscience as an undergraduate and a clear connection to natural food, but there really is one. And I kind of by accident during a summer off from college got a summer job working in the regional office of whole foods, which was then doing businesses, bread and circus up in the Northeast.
I was the receptionist for a summer answering phones. And through that experience, I got to know the people who ran that region. People like AC Gallo, who later was the president and head of merchandising at whole foods. He actually just retired this week. Oh, wow. These people who are so excited about natural and organic food and merchandising produce and what makes good meat, good meat Really piqued my interest in this very radical company that was doing grocery very differently.
So went back to college after that summer job, the next summer scored an internship with their marketing director who had gone to the same college that I had gone to, and we became good friends. And then in that moment after college, where I was applying to graduate schools, living at my parents’ house, not sure what my path was just kind of laying low.
They called me and were like, if you’re just, you know, sitting at home, sending off applications, let’s work on some projects. And so I started working with them on a few marketing projects and that turned into a full-time job. But what really excited to be about the company was the standards. The audacity to, for grocery chain to take a stance on GMO labeling or to fight for stricter organic standards.
That was all happening around that time. That, there were some controversial proposals for what organic would mean. And then whole foods was when all in to fight for a really strict standard. And so that, you know, the marketing is sort of where I happened to land, but it was the standards and the policy that really drew me to the.
Let me to fall in love with it. And so, after I’d been working in a marketing role for two or three years, this job was posted by Margaret Wittenberg, who was one of the, very early employees of whole foods and always the conscience of the company and the bearer of the standards. She sent out a note, they were hiring a research assistant on the quality standards team in Austin.
And that was, the one team in the organization. I was sort of obsessed with someday being a part of. And so that’s really where the, how the pivot happened. I was 24 years old. I thought I was radically unqualified for this position, but I was so excited by it. I threw my name in, I interviewed via 2004, a style of video conferencing, which is not like zoom today.
It’s like this blurry, messy experience. Ended up getting this long shot of a job and Austin with this dream. And so I flew down here in 2004 to find an apartment became part of Margaret’s team, started to work on issues like GMO labeling organic standards a lot of educational initiatives within the company and had the.
Incredible opportunity. Over the 15 years, I was part of that team to grow with the company, grow with the team, take on additional responsibilities. And ultimately I left the company as the director of quality standards, having built a team of a dozen or so really high performing experts on everything from seafood sustainability to organic standards and animal welfare.
[00:04:30] Mason: So filling in the gaps a little, why are you drawn to quality? So. Does that tie back to the neuroscience or
[00:04:36] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: it doesn’t quite well? No, it doesn’t quite directly tie back. I was obsessed with the quality standards because that’s what made the company unique and special, especially back in the early two thousands, you know, HEBs and Kroger’s of the world were starting to have some natural products and some organic options, but it was whole foods that had really been fighting hard to make them available in a totally new way to so many more people and helped really build that industry.
While I was in college, in the Hudson valley of New York, I started to go to farmer’s markets and worked a couple summers on a goat farm, actually in the Hudson valley. And, started to tune into what was happening in sustainable agriculture while I was there and then met this company that was doing more than I imagine a grocery store could to advance sustainability.
And that’s really, and that team in Austin was in my mind, the nexus of where that was.
[00:05:26] Mason: So how does it tie back to the neuroscience?
[00:05:28] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: So when you get a neuroscience degree as an undergrad you kind of get thrown in this maelstrom of really technical, really complex stuff.
And it’s like, You go from an intro class to reading, really complex studies and pieces of research in linguistics and perception and how the brain works. You have to get really good at digesting really complex stuff, and then regurgitating and synthesizing it for. Audience that may not be familiar with the details.
And that’s the skillset from getting that really hard science degree that I then continue to leverage and consider to be one of, my biggest talents is helping people, whether it’s new employees at whole foods or my team at Merryfield or consumers that I want to help educate, helping boil it down.
And that’s where I think that neuroscience degree has really helped me in a totally different discipline, but in very similar ways.
[00:06:25] Mason: Yeah. Very fascinating. And I have a very similar story. I was a chemical engineer and there was always this one class, which was all about, chemistry slash physics.
And once a week. It was a contest to see who could take this concept, usually a very complex concept and then explain it in terms that anyone could understand. And I won that contest almost every single week, because I could think of these real world analogy. For what the complex information was.
And so I enjoy that aspect as well, and especially of organics and food and helping people understand, and boil it down.
[00:07:03] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Like you said, you, don’t not, everyone wants every last detail of every, chemical fertilizer that can be used in conventional agriculture. Yeah. But can you boil it down and,
summarize it in a way that how bad is
[00:07:17] Mason: it right Ryan? Yeah.
[00:07:19] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Right. And a lot of people just want to know, should I buy this or not? Does this seal mean anything or not? And I’ve always loved doing the research to figure out those basic questions for consumers. Yeah.
[00:07:29] Jess: Great skill set for you both to have. And Mason, I know you have that as well.
Here the change in your tone, anytime you try to explain something to me, and I know your brain has this big concept in your mind, but then you’re like, okay, how do I make this? And like this term for you, so whole foods brought you to Texas and you currently live in a farm outside of Austin and Bastrop where you are raising goats with your husband out there.
So. Still have those goats. And how many do you have? We,
[00:07:58] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: so we had as many as 40 goats during our time on the ranch. We’re currently in the process of transitioning where I’m actually moving back to new England. So we’re winding down the ranch that we’ve built up over the last seven years. All of the goats have gone to very good homes.
All the chickens have gone to very good homes. The donkeys are still there. And they’re going back with their former owners. Next. At our peak, we had about 40 goats. We were raising them mainly for brush clearing purposes, but also for milk and meat. We got pretty decent at cheesemaking over the years through a lot of trial and error and experimentation having a flock of chickens and the eggs they provide has been amazing.
It’s gonna be hard to go back to buying eggs at the grocery store, but that was fun. We, you know, built a little business. We sold eggs and goat, meat and milk to friends and family and a a very small scale business, but it was an incredible learning experience. Yeah.
[00:08:53] Mason: Yeah. I’d
[00:08:53] Jess: imagine any cheese is just hard to make,
[00:08:56] Mason: but goats in particular, the milk is very sour from most of the gestation.
[00:09:00] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Yeah. And to get it to be sort of grassy and sweet and clean tasting is all a product of how you raised the goats and the environment there. And which was a big learning for us early on.
[00:09:10] Mason: where I’d like to go next is something that it kind of bugs me. I think about the American system. many people think that because we’re in America and we’re so innovative and we have this free market that leads to better and faster product development that we actually end up with really high quality stuff.
And. People seem to forget the role that regulation actually plays in this and that it does play an important role. And so using where the us is right now as a baseline, from a regulatory perspective, how much regulation do you think there should be? What’s the state of regulation.
[00:09:48] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Wow. That’s a good, complicated question. And I’m in the answer varies a little bit, whether we’re talking about food beauty products, household products there’s varying degrees of regulation, of different segments of the CPG market. All of them probably. But you know, as an example, just food ingredients, you look at what we allow for color additives.
And the number of the, of the ones we allowed that are not allowed in Europe for valid clinical reasons around, hyperactivity in children and just, safety question marks that have come up in the literature. The approach in Europe is much more precautious. There, you know, no one needs a brightly colored candy, like it’ll taste the same without it.
And there’s a lot of innovation and natural colors that have happened over the years and their, their approach has been to err, on the side of caution, our approach has been, to require a higher. As far as evidence of harm to man and ingredient. And I think it’s resulted in a lot of potentially questionable ingredients, not, definitely bad, but enough of a question mark, to give me pause as an eater and for companies like whole foods and what we’ve done at Merryfield and the natural foods industry, I think the natural products industry has always been a little more precautionary than the FDA.
Yeah. And then you get into cleaning products go to HEB or home Depot and try to figure out what is in an all purpose cleaner on the shelf. They’re not even listing the ingredients or some are, but they’re not required by regulation. And then, the EPA evaluation of these, the ingredients is also pretty lacking.
[00:11:23] Mason: That’s one of the, the parts that to me is the most frustrating that they intentionally try to optimize. What’s in it. I don’t necessarily call it malice. They just want to make the money and they want to do it in a non complicated way. But it seems like consumers should have access to information as a, first bar,
[00:11:44] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: as a starting point.
Yeah, exactly. At least, let people. Who may have different viewpoints on how conservative they want to be about the safety of ingredients. At least give people the information they need to research and make a decision. And then, separately consider the safety of those ingredients and how far our regulators should go in, banning them, the regulations that govern cosmetics, both the safety of ingredients and how they’re labeled.
Those haven’t really been updated since 1938. Whoa. That’s an incredibly long time. It is a very long time and there’s, you know, FDA has been some ingredients and, they’re for example, right now looking pretty critically at chemical sunscreens, which have long been in use for all of our lives. But barring those sort of, you know, outlier examples, like they really haven’t done much with cosmetic ingredients over the last, you know, 7,500 years.
[00:12:36] Jess: I listened to a speaker at a trade show that we went to, and this is back to ingredients in foods. She had put up a map and it listed how many ingredients were not allowed and the European countries and many other countries that the U S aloud and the list was like over a hundred long.
And it just blew my mind that, there’s other countries out there that are banning these sayings or regulating it much more strictly in red dyes or blue or yellow. Those were definitely one on the list. And I think there is a story we were out on an RV trip trying to find a cough drop, and I could not find a cough drop without any of the dyes.
And it seems like there’s just a lot of products like the dyes are in the product and there’s not many alternatives out there. Absolutely.
[00:13:16] Mason: Yeah. Some people would be like, well, aren’t there things that the U S. More protective of than Europe and in food.
I think just, no, not really. There’s really nothing that us is saying we should move slower on or be more careful about, than, than most other countries. Is there anything right now? You are concerned about safety that is in the market, that we should all look out for
[00:13:39] Jess: things that you don’t consume.
[00:13:41] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: I don’t consume.
Well, I’m glad hydrogenated oils are slowly leaving the market. Yeah. We didn’t know, 20 years ago how dangerous they are and how challenging they are for cardiovascular health. And they really do have. Issues. It took the FDA a while, but it’s actually a good example where they have acted based on emerging research to limit and then eliminate the use of a bad ingredient.
That’s great. As far as, things I avoid, I mean, a lot of it gets into animal products. I tend to be pretty stringent about how animals are raised before they, come into my kitchen. And then how stuff has. None of the FDA regulation around food ingredients really deals with how it has grown, what chemicals are used.
And that’s where, the organic seal. It brings so much meaning for consumers. And it’s something you I’m always telling people about. If you’re going to look for one thing in the grocery store, look for organic because it covers not just banned artificial preservatives and colors and sweeteners and flavors, but also the worst agricultural chemicals aren’t used when that product was grown.
[00:14:43] Mason: I think there’s a decent amount of backlash of people saying that organic has been watered down and cause every year there’s some new news story out about. Uh, threat to organics. And at th at this point, it seems like most of them are actually clickbait and they’re not even any based in any kind of reality, but, you know, what’s your perspective on that?
[00:15:06] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: mean, most of them are clickbait. Some of them are these sort of like gotcha stories where, you know, this team of researchers finds that organic has no more nutritional value than conventional. And that probably was true. Although I think there is some promising research around nutritional differences, especially, levels of certain antioxidants and phytochemicals, but in general, like, yeah, an organic zucchini, isn’t going to have much higher levels of any vitamin or mineral than conventional zucchini, but maybe organic consumers aren’t buying it because it’s more nutritious.
They’re avoiding. I agricultural chemicals and pesticides that could have been sprayed on it. And those stories kind of glossed right over those advantages. And you see it every few months. There’s one, a story in that style. There was the recent, pretty big new Yorker story about the issues around organic fraud.
The guy had gone to prison for a pretty large scale grand fraud setup. And that was pretty damning. And honestly, It all happened. There really was a big situation where some bad actors exploited some flaws in the organic regulatory framework and duped a lot of people. But at the end of the day, it represents a pretty small sliver of organic Grande.
And what that article didn’t cover is the degree to which both the organic sector and the USDA have staffed up around enforcement and surveillance and testing since that situation took place. So. Yeah, organic. Isn’t perfect. It’s one of the trade-offs honestly, when we made organic a federal regulation, it had the full credibility and enforcement power of the U S government, but it got harder for it to adapt and evolve with changing market conditions and consumer preferences.
It used to be an individual certifier, could add a sub. To the list of what they allow. And now that goes through a pretty complex process where there’s a federal advisory committee called the national organic standards board that reviews everything. Then it goes through legal and regulatory review at USDA.
And it can be a few years before it changed, sees the light of day. So it’s more credible and more enforceable, but it’s also slower to evolve and that’s, a double-edged sword for the industry. Yeah. And in what
[00:17:13] Jess: ways do you think.
[00:17:16] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: It needs to encompass animal welfare in a meaningful way. That to me is one of the biggest deficiencies and one that I spent five years on the national organic standards board as the retail representative.
We spent a lot of that time as an industry fighting for tougher animal welfare standards and the. And our recommendation was unanimous. It went to the USDA, got caught up in some administrative review and ultimately the USDA declined to implement those recommendations. It went into the legal system.
There’s a pending law. But at the end of the day, the organic industry pretty unanimously feels that one of the areas where consumers can be potentially disappointed and their organic sale and where it has a real vulnerability is that it’s not specific enough about the living conditions of organic animals.
[00:18:04] Jess: And so it mainly just covers what those animals eat versus how
[00:18:07] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: they, it covers what they eat a little bit of how they live. They have to have access to the outdoors. They have to have clean food and water. They can’t be given antibiotics or growth hormones. It does cover the basics, but it does.
Get into stocking density, how much space is available per animal or any measures of animal health or wellbeing, like body condition and stuff like that. It just doesn’t get into that much detail. And so there’ve been a few highly visible, certified organic animal operations that probably met the letter of the regulation, but not the spirit or consumer expectations around what organic should mean.
And that I think hurt the seal quite a bit. Yeah.
[00:18:47] Mason: And they was still. Animals poorly, but if they got sick, they would just remove them from the organic herd. And so that was one of the ways that they got around it. And I always said, as you move further away from the soil, it gets more and more complex to determine what organics actually means.
[00:19:05] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, an animal production systems, it gets harder to apply that word. To a much more complex system. There has been a lot of interest from the industry and creating an organic standard for. Fish farming. And my position has always been that that’s just not the right word to use. You know, there are good and bad fish farming systems with different levels of environmental impact and animal health.
But the word organic is about agriculture and how food is grown. And when you try to map that onto big net pens in the ocean, where salmon are being raised, it just loses its meaning. And doesn’t exactly resonate with. What consumers would expect. So,
[00:19:46] Mason: it doesn’t translate. And one other point you were on the NASB actually.
There’s so close to applying a year and a half ago. A couple of them as CCS, veggie, co processor, there was a spot that was opening. I ended up not just didn’t think I could have the time, but I was doing a bunch of research into the NS NSB and a follow the standards for. And I think it really is surprising how little the regulations change and how long it takes to change.
Everyone says its threat to organics is, is coming. And yes, like everyone proposes rural changes every single year. And yet the amount of those that don’t get involved. And I was on the board of United fresh produce association, national produce association, and the one little, it wasn’t even. Uh, rural change.
It was just the USEA reiterated what the role actually is and said, you have to go interpret it as you see fit, but this is a rule and we have not changed the rule and here’s a rule and it was around container systems. And I just couldn’t even believe the controversy that cause within the produce industry, it was literally two years.
These people could not stop talking about this thing. And I’m like, but nothing has changed. You’re you’re debating, but nothing actually changed.
[00:21:09] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: There were literally well protests at the NASB meeting in Vermont with farmers and tractors and you know, bucket loads of dirt being dumped outside the hotel to demonstrate.
Dirt has to be part of organic. And whether it’s a container system, hydroponic systems have been very controversial where, you know, a lot of people see the value of, no pesticide, very controllable, very safe systems in which to grow produce. And a lot of organic purists see that as.
Contrary to the origins of organic, that should be focused on soil health. And I think both sides have a lot of valid points. And it continues to be a tough one for the sector and the program. Yeah. What’s your take, I think I’m a big proponent of transparency. Like I’m personally I’m okay with hydroponic organic, as long as it’s clear to me as the consumer, that it was grown in a hydroponic system.
[00:22:00] Mason: That’s a cool tag. Cause it, it still eliminates all that, the bad parts and lots of places. You’re unable to grow field, grow a whole lot. Things that we want to eat and we want to have in our diet. And so they can fill a gap, but I, get the soil purest side as well. And especially for things like tomatoes and in Texas, you know, Texas fresh field, ground tomato, there’s no hydroponic that can ever come close to.
[00:22:27] Jess: exactly does it work to be able to make certain produce items that you can’t in certain areas? Like how does the hydroponic system work without all of the.
[00:22:37] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Well, eh, you know, the, the roots are in a sort of spongy medium that are kind of in a box. Pool or a tank or an enclosure of water. And so all the nutrients for the plant kind of flow through that water and are up taken by the roots without them being an actual soil.
And so you can get all the nutrients. Exactly. It’s the one that’s, that’s kind of the fundamental split is, you know, do we even know what all the nutrients are? Like, are there soil microbes and beneficial compounds and things in the soil that we don’t even have an identified and don’t understand yet?
Absolutely. I’m also, you know, having studied cognitive neuroscience, I’m a big believer in the limitations of our own cognition and ability to know. And I think that’s kind of what it comes down to is this sort of, you know, do we have the wisdom to know what the right blend of nutrients is?
Or should we revert to the innate wisdom of the soil?
[00:23:29] Mason: We want to get to Maryfield quick, but actually think I want to jump to who decides whether the food available in the U S is safe or not because there’s the government and there’s two organizations within it, FDA and the USDA that have their fingers in it.
Are there more organizations, are those the two and how do they play it together?
[00:23:49] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Those are the main two. The USDA has largely jurisdiction over agriculture. What happens in fields? What happens on animal farms and the labeling of meat products. The FDA has jurisdiction, well, meat, dairy, and eggs go to USDA.
FDA has jurisdiction over, first of all, what ingredients are allowed in legal, what causes a food to become adult traded, whether for food safety or a formulation reasons. EPA also has a role in regulating the pesticides that are used in the agricultural chemicals that are used from an environmental perspective the three agencies don’t always align.
There’s a lot of really interesting regulatory drama between USDA and FDA over where they’re aligning. And there’s all these regulations where, you know, if it’s a bagel pizza that has pepperoni on it than the USDA oversees the label. And if it doesn’t have pepperoni than it’s under FDA jurisdiction cheese.
Yeah. But it depends on how much she is. And as the cheese of characterizing ingredient, it’s, it’s a lot of like bureaucratic,
[00:24:52] Jess: Who doesn’t want that product under their regulation, or they’re like, no, we need to oversee that.
[00:24:58] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Possibly. It’s not even clear. It’s I think there’s just a long history of bureaucratic division that goes into that. I imagine
[00:25:05] Mason: they should. Yeah. Where people show up and be like, whoa, whoa, whoa. This is now our jurisdiction.
What are you guys doing here? CA this has pepperoni in it.
[00:25:16] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: I am imagining field agents with headsets, and I just like have a showdown in the aisle of an HEB. So you know, different agencies are looking at different things. As I mentioned before, FDA is probably, not that focused right now on actively reviewing the safety of food ingredients that have been in long use.
GMO labeling is an area that It’s tricky. The USDA has mandatory labeling regulation of, for GMOs goes into a fact actually next week. And that’s a really interesting example of what seemed to be a great idea, in the process of going through rulemaking and the creation of the regulation, getting watered down and dumbed down to a place where it’s pretty meaningless as it’s about to take effect.
That’s disappointing. Yeah, that’s a tough one. I’ve spent a lot of my time working on GMO, labeling and GMO transparency and helping consumers who want to avoid GMO’s confidently identify products that are made without GMOs. And that was the intent of, you know, the federal law. Direct to the USDA to create a GMO labeling regulation.
And what came out after rulemaking was something that has so many exemptions in it. You know, for example, it exempts products or ingredients that don’t have any testable DNA in them. So if you, for example, have. Where you, you know, in the process of refining the oil, you’re really stripping out any remaining protein.
And it’s pretty much all fat because you can’t test that for the presence of GMOs it’s exempt from labeling. So it’s an oil that was made entirely from GMO canola. It’s made from one crop, one ingredient, tens of thousands of acres of, of a GMO crop being sprayed with Roundup. It doesn’t have to be labeled,
[00:26:58] Mason: which had already been.
Adults heard, cause that was called rapeseed, right?
[00:27:02] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: That’s a whole other hour conversation. The story of canola oil or sugar, you know, a lot, most sugar sold conventionally is from GMO sugar beets. And because of the degree to which they’re refined and processed most of it falls outside of the scope of the labeling requirement.
And animal products, you know, animal products from animals fed GMOs, which is pretty much most conventional animal feed. Those don’t have to be labeled either. And so for a consumer who wants to opt out of GMO pesticide intensive, conventional agriculture, the system doesn’t really provide a tool for them.
[00:27:37] Mason: And so to summarize that, the reason why you think. Uh, consumers would want to avoid GMO is not necessarily that the genetic modification itself makes the product dangerous, but it’s the system
[00:27:53] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: around it for me, I mean, there’s a lot of different reasons people avoid GMOs.
But mainly. It’s the use of herbicides, you know, it’s, most of the GMOs have been genetically engineered to withstand the application of Roundup or glyphosate.
[00:28:10] Mason: And that’s I looked at was 95%. Yeah, yeah,
[00:28:13] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: yeah. I mean, some of them also have disease or pest resistance built into them, but it’s mostly to be herbicide tolerant.
And so the farmer can spray massive amounts of whatever the herbicide is, kill everything around the corn or soy or canola. And it doesn’t kill the. And, you know, it’s great for farming efficiency, but at the massive application of this substance, which has some pretty big environmental and safety questions around it is not the kind of agriculture I want to support when I go to the grocery store.
[00:28:41] Mason: Yeah, environmental and health issues that are coming out from it. And yet it’s ubiquitous at this point. And it
[00:28:49] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: was approved by the EPA at a time when it was used much more sparingly. And it hasn’t really had a real review since it’s been used widely in GMO agriculture and in wheat. It’s used increasingly right before harvest to boost seed production of wheat and grain plants.
And that’s a whole other source of exposure that I don’t think we fully understand. And that worries me quite a bit. Yeah.
[00:29:14] Mason: And the original GMO technology was extremely sloppy and they would just go shake things up in a vile.
Sometimes the DNA would stick sometimes in the right spot. Sometimes not produced, 10,000 seeds, and maybe one of them would produce a plant that actually. Look like the original plant and did what needed to do. There’s been some GMO technology that has come out like CRISPR that is much more, accurate and precise in what they do.
And so some GMO things are coming out like the what was that? Was it a pineapple is a pink, pink pineapple. If you’re trying to avoid GMOs for the agriculture system around it, it’s still, it’s a blanket. No thanks. With all these new technologies coming in, do you need to separate?
[00:30:02] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Well, I mean, from a consumer perspective, with all these new technologies, CRISPR and related forms of more precise gene silencing gene editing. A lot of the earlier forms of GMO agriculture involved taking genetic material from a different species and putting it into a plant. Yeah. Some of the newer technologies are a little more precise, but still have questions.
Yeah. And so, you know, from a consumer perspective to avoid all of them, the non GMO project seal is really the only. They’ve done a great job. They’ve built a team of researchers who are continually monitoring all of the research, all of the announcements, all of these new GMO events and technologies to figure out, you know, how to keep them out of their program.
[00:30:46] Mason: So the government isn’t going far enough where the FDA, USDA and EPA all involved and jockeying for, uh, either handling or mishandling particular things. And so we’ve built programs that sit on top of the government to help consumers understand. You know, what’s good and what’s not good.
Organics is actually how do you describe that relationship? Because it’s a power of the government, but it’s not the government.
[00:31:14] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s often described as a public private partnership, there’s a public piece. The government owns the standard.
There’s a very defined way in which private industry gives input and as a sector advises on what should be allowed and isn’t allowed, but it’s a pretty rare example that kind of collaboration and partnership between the government and an industry. I mean, you see it in a lot of cases where the industry probably has less authority, but in organic, the,
industry advisory board really determines what’s allowed and what isn’t allowed. And that makes it really different. Yeah.
[00:31:47] Mason: Very cool program. You mentioned non-GMO project, which sits kind of on top of the next layer of private enterprise, helping protect consumers from, bad actors and bad food.
What are there programs out there that you like.
[00:32:03] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: I love, you know, fair trade USA and rainforest Alliance and the groups that are really going back down the supply chain to look carefully at, trading conditions in vulnerable economies and worker conditions in those same areas. I think that’s a part of the supply chain that we don’t really address anywhere else.
And when you get into coffee and sugar and Palm, and you know, a lot of these equatorial commodities, there’s a lot of vulnerability and real. Absolutely.
[00:32:28] Jess: Yeah. And those are even going further than food nowadays, which I guess they have been button in textiles and in other industries,
[00:32:34] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: even home goods and furniture.
Yeah. All, any area where there’s, you know, vulnerability around labor is a ripe candidate for fair trade verification. Um, yeah, so those are great programs. I think in the cosmetic sector and personal care, there’s a real void of government regulation and a lot of people, folks filling in the gaps there.
Most notably the environmental working group, they have an EWG verified seal that’s taking off. It’s on hundreds, if not thousands of products, it’s probably been in the market now for about three or four years, but as far as gold standards go, that’s kind of it for personal. Yeah,
[00:33:12] Jess: we got a box recently from them.
We’ve had, which had a ton of great beauty products and that they all had the seal on it. And I think I’ve only gotten into two of them so far, but it was very excited to get that box.
[00:33:24] Mason: Yeah. We love the DWG and they do the dirty dozen, so they help monitor food as well. And, prove beyond a doubt that chemical agriculture leads to chemicals in food.
[00:33:36] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Yeah, no, they do amazing work in so many different parts of the store.
[00:33:40] Jess: So let’s get into your new company. Merryfield so we know it’s a tool built into the market to help consumers make better choices, especially given the fact that we don’t have a ton of regulation here in the U S do you want to give us a background or give, tell us the Genesis of Merryfield
[00:33:55] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: so Merryfield is, I mean, it’s a lot of things. It’s a product discovery platform and a rewards platform. Our mission is really to make it easier for consumers to buy better products by helping them discover brands that are truly better, that meet higher standards that really operate with purpose and to reward them for buying those products, to make it more accessible and more affordable for more people to access better product.
The Genesis really came from me initially, meeting Mike now, business partner and CEO David four years ago. He’s an interesting guy who spent his whole career really up until Merryfield working in private equity, investing in healthcare and pharmaceutical companies. And he started to see this sort of pattern emerge where he, slowly realized that the economy he was really working in was built upon a lot of diseases.
That at its root was based on nutrition and access to better food. And he sort of stepped back from that world and decided to focus his energy and his resources on using technology to help consumers buy better products. He likes to talk about this moment where he was in a grocery store somewhere in the suburbs of Massachusetts and was like why can’t I have a whole foods like filter to help me understand which products are good, which are bad, which seals me in anything which ingredients to avoid.
Nobody really has time to do that research. And yet you go into an HEB or even a Walmart now, and there’s never been more natural, organic, clean label, better for you stuff available, but it’s hard for a consumer to figure out which products are legitimately better. And so that’s, that’s where we started.
We started to brainstorm about this fundamental problem where most people want to choose better products, but it’s hard for them to identify the products. And the products, tend to be a little more expensive than the conventional alternatives. We thought, how can we make it more rewarding, help people better understand, the stories of these brands and what makes them truly better and create something that kept them coming back, kept them, opening the app, buying products from brands repeatedly and getting some cash back and rewards for doing.
[00:36:04] Jess: I think it’s amazing, it helps consumers learn about new, better for you products who don’t have all of the information, but then for those who do already buy those products, it’s just such a great incentive to then continue purchasing and to upload your. We’ve used Merryfield a few times. I think I’m at like 7500 points right now.
I haven’t used it too long yet, but for us the first few times I used it, it was all products that I was already putting in my grocery cart at the store. But now that I’ve gotten more acquainted with the app, I’m learning about new brands. And so I do feel like it truly. Have two markets
[00:36:36] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: there.
Exactly. It’s an opportunity for people to get rewarded for stuff they’re already buying, but also discover new brands. You know, we have bigger brands like Stonyfield and Applegate. we just added Dave’s killer bread and Barilla pasta, some major brands that people know, but we also have some more emerging and smaller brands that I’m really excited to help people discover and understand, you know, Quinn pretzels are really awesome or why health aid kombucha is better than anyone else on the market.
[00:37:04] Jess: And even coming from CPG, at CCS and I was at an organic baby food company prior, I’ve learned about all the apps and whether they’re driven by the retailer or whether they’re driven. Bargains or coupons and things. Sometimes it’s hard to get the value for a loyal customer or to bring in new customers.
And so even as a marketer, I feel like brands that are in the better for you space are going to love to be aligned with this type of app and not. Get caught up into some of the other incentives from other apps. So it’s just different.
[00:37:33] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Thank you. Yeah. We’d like to think it’s very different from what’s out there.
Most brands, have thought about some sort of loyalty program for their consumers, some way to reward their consistent shoppers for coming back and buying their product again. But from a consumer perspective, it’s really hard. For there to be enough value there to open the app for that one brand loyalty program or forward your receipt or upload a barcode or whatever it is you need to do.
But if we get 50 or a hundred or 150 brands together, the value to the consumer increases immensely and it becomes much more rewarding and, fun to use for the consumer, you’re getting way more value back. And so far that that thinking has been in.
[00:38:14] Jess: Yeah, I get so disappointed when our receipts get thrown away.
Like, damn it. I haven’t uploaded.
[00:38:19] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: Or I still I’ve been working on this receipt scanning based app for four years. I still, sometimes when they ask if I want a receipt, I’m like, oh no, thanks. And then I remember just reflex. But that’s, you know, one of the things we’re working on too is, is connecting with more and more retailers, digital.
So that for people who don’t want a paper receipt or don’t have the paper receipt or get their groceries delivered or pick up curbside the rewards are available. That’s awesome.
[00:38:44] Mason: You spent a ton of time helping create standards and it seems to be moving the needle. And I think it’s really cool. The work that you’ve done. Who are the people that are picking up the torch right now
[00:38:55] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: I think there’s an incredible future for helping standards improve. I think we know God, I feel old saying this, but we know that the generation younger than us is even more committed to transparency and ethical commerce and choosing better products.
I’m excited for what that generation aging into these organizations and companies and nonprofits will bring us. But you look at, my former team at whole foods, you know, is still doing incredible work. A lot of younger folks on that team, you know, becoming experts in their disciplines.
You look at the non GMO project. I think they now have a team of 50 or 60 people. A lot of them, really driven, passionate, young people. Who want to make a difference and access to non GMO products? It’s been a funny couple of years doing conference talks and panels virtually on zoom.
But I keep meeting people from, fair trade organizations and advocacy groups, like friends of the earth and EWG. I’m energized by the people younger than us that are. Louder and more worked up and or determined to make an impact.
[00:40:03] Mason: That’s wonderful. Cause I guess the Genesis from the question was that there’s a generation that’s getting tired. Of trying to protect our food. And so, it’s good to hear that there’s passionate, excited, younger
[00:40:15] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: generations. So funny for me too. Now in this zoom era, too. Watch NSB meetings without going to DC or wherever they’re holding them.
There’s like a bunch of really amazing gifted folks in their twenties and thirties. The retail representative is a woman from a cooperative grocery store. Who’s who’s on the younger side. She come from PCC
[00:40:35] Mason: was that,
[00:40:35] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: I don’t know. I think she was from one of the co-ops in the Midwest. There was there have having folks from PCC on the board too, have been amazing.
But there’s a, uh, Nate Powell, Palm is a farmer from Montana, Wyoming, that part of the world. Who’s, I believe in his twenties and sitting on the NASB and leading really important conversations about what organic should mean.
[00:40:55] Mason: Yeah. I really liked the crop that got in. Cause I think it was a few years ago.
I mean, I think someone from McDonald’s got on and it was a little. There’s a little question, but you know, yeah.
[00:41:09] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: That may have been an unsubstantiated rumor. I don’t think there’s ever been anyone on the board, but there have been, there was a guy from Campbell soup on the board who was one of my favorite collaborators on the board, Steve Tamara, you know, it’s one of the most surprising things to me on the board is that, there is no correlation between the size of the organization you work for and your level of passion and personal integrity.
You know, some of the best people on the board were from general mills. Campbell’s Driscoll’s
[00:41:33] Mason: When, uh, John Mackey’s book. Conscious capitalism. I think it’s actually prior. He, him and Michael Strong wrote a book called flow and I went to a seminar with them and they said, where we really need changes from within the big organizations.
And you need people to be in Campbell’s and to be in ConAgra and say, we need higher standards.
[00:41:56] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: That’s the most impact is, you know, I mean, small farmers and small brands matter of course. But so do general mills and Denone and Unilever and what they do, you know, a small decision on the part of Michelob to to make their main beer organic.
That was amazing. Like, it’s incredible. We talk about that a lot at Merryfield, you know, I’ve had coworkers be like, but what does that mean? Is it really organic? I’m like, yes, it’s really organic. And you know, while beer isn’t. That represents tens, if not hundreds of thousands of acres, of organic barley and wheat and ingredients for beer that are not being farmed conventionally.
And that’s incredible. Yeah,
[00:42:32] Mason: it’s incredible. I’ve been gluten-free for, I think 12 years now, maybe 10 or 12 years, and I’ll still drink an organical tra just to support the movement. So we’ve talked about your work, creating better Sanders, moving into a business, trying to help people understand the standards and make better choices.
What are the missing pieces to make better for you? Standards commonplace in the
[00:42:56] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: U S to my previous point, I think, you know, better for you. Food needs to continue to be more accessible. And more affordable and more familiar to more people. You know, I think a lot of that comes with scale. Some of the economies of scale help bring the prices down.
I think retailers have a role to play in educating consumers on what better for you really means. And you know, whole foods has done an incredible job with that. I think, you know, while the conventional groceries of the world have done a great job carrying some of the better free products, I think they could do a better job promoting and educating and helping consumers understand their.
And that’s, you know, a lot of what the problem we’re trying to solve with Merryfield is, you know, how can we incrementally, help people better understand the benefits and get a little money back and hopefully, you know, help some of these brands emerge continue to scale and become more accessible to more
[00:43:51] Jess: you guys have also have an exciting new co-founder that joined recently or earlier this year, Zoe Deschanel, best known for playing Jess in New Girl
And so we were curious when y’all’s next company party is, but really how has that partnership been with her joining the
[00:44:08] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: team? It’s been absolutely amazing. So we, you know, we knew that we wanted to work with a potential celebrity partner to expand our reach and get noticed by more people. And we talked to a number of agents and celebrities and had some ideas, but when we met Zoe fireworks.
She has been working for years on issues around sustainability and access to better food. She created this amazing web series of short documentaries called your food’s roots, where she as almost a journalist dove into what makes better bread better and what are the bad things in conventional bread and what is beyond meat actually made of, and show this sort of like inherited.
Passion for where food comes from, that I was blown away by. And as we started to talk to her about what we’re doing and, you know, the, the work that she does thinking about what to feed her kids and what to feed ourselves, we just jelled really well. And so she’s, you know, become a really key part of our team, largely focused on helping get the Merryfield story out there and helping us, you know, really think through, from a user perspective who we want to be and how we want to bring our brand stories to that.
That’s awesome. It sounds like it’s an amazing fit.
[00:45:19] Mason: The next question is what can we as consumers do to help? Obviously the first answer is download the Merryfield,
[00:45:25] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: download the Merryfield app get amazing gift cards for buying better for you products in every category of the store. But seriously as consumers I’ve always said, like, we have to ask questions and demand.
Look for organic, look for non-GMO. It’s hard to, as a consumer, just walk into a grocery store, turn over the label, who has time to Google each of the 16, 20 syllable ingredients in a product. But I think, looking for organic and non GMO project verified is a great way to, make that process less time consuming, but know that you can trust a product.
That’s a. And continue to, I can’t stress enough. Don’t let retailers off the hook, you know, ask your local grocer why the product you’re looking for. Isn’t there. Yeah. Or what they’re doing to make organic and natural and clean label food, more available.
[00:46:11] Mason: lastly, what resources do you normally tell people where do they go to learn more or get.
[00:46:19] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: it’s the dearth of that set of resources that led us to start very field. So I want to say, you know, check out our website and our app to learn more, but we didn’t, you know, we created a pretty strict set of standards for Merryfield of the ingredients we don’t allow and the requirements we put into place.
And we have a glossary and a sort of searchable list of all of those on our website. So you can click on, so why am I avoiding, artificial flavors, like look at our little blurb and be reminded and link for more information. Wonderful.
[00:46:47] Mason: Perfect. And it’s kind of the perfect compliment to on outside of food.
There’s an organization that we partner with as well called Finch that does sustainability research for CPG products, mostly home goods and cleaning products and everything else that goes in the home except for food. And so we’re like, that’s a good compliment Finch and Merryfield, we’ll take care of you.
If you need to know how good something is. And I think that’s about it. Thank you so much for being on the
[00:47:15] Joe Dickson of Merryfield: show. Thank you both. This has been great.
Check out our other clean eating podcasts – https://www.mostlygreen.life/podcasts