Natural Foods Merchandiser

Retailers Left Hanging on Hemp Issue

Consternation ruled the hemp food world as producers digested a Drug Enforcement Administration ruling that could make their products illegal after April 21.

The late-March edict gave manufacturers 30 days to either reformulate their wares without hemp or pull them off the market.

"It's pretty ugly," said David Neuman, vice president of sales and marketing at Nature's Path Foods Inc., where Organic Hemp Plus Granola is the company's top seller, accounting for 3 percent of total sales. "Nobody's telling the retailers anything."

The Hemp Industry Association and a group of manufacturers asked the Ninth Circuit U.S. District Court of Appeals for a stay of the DEA's "final rule" issued March 21. The rule, which is nearly identical to an "interim rule" issued in late 2001 and stayed by the same court, affirms that products ingested by humans may not contain any quantity of THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana.

Delta, British Columbia-based Nature's Path continues to produce its hemp granola and Lifestream Natural Hemp Plus Waffles, Neuman said. Trader Joe's and other retailers have placed large orders that have enabled Nature's Path to continue production. "The more retailers support it, the more consumers support it, the more we're sending a message to Washington," he said.

Hemp food producers say their products contain only trace amounts of THC, just as poppy seeds contain only trace amounts of opium. But the DEA dismissed that logic, saying the comparison cannot be made because "substances that contain opiates are controlled differently than substances that contain schedule I hallucinogens (such as THC)."

David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps of Escondido, Calif., and chair of the Food and Oils Committee of the HIA, believes the Ninth Circuit will again come through for the hemp industry. "It looks like the court is eager to rule," he said.

If the motion is delayed or denied, Bronner said, the future is "uncertain and not pleasant."

Shawn House, president of Hempzel Pretzel Co. of Lancaster, Pa., predicted that common sense will eventually win out. The amount of THC in a typical hemp food item "is like a grain of sand in a dump truck," he said.

Hemp foods accounted for just $6 million of the hemp industry's $140 million in U.S. sales last year. But producers who have made hemp the cornerstone of their business are scrambling to source alternative ingredients and putting expansion plans on hold.

Even as Nature's Path searches for a substitute for hemp seed that offers equivalent taste and nutritional benefits, Neuman wonders what the government is up to. "The DEA knows nothing about food," he said. "In their mind, a box of our cereal is the same as a joint."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 5/p.

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