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Organic Standards and Product Integrity

Last month I wrote about the growth of organics. At the end of that article I mentioned the important role that consumers and retailers play by being vigilant in upholding organic standards. This month I want to highlight examples of just how slippery of a slope upholding organic standards can be and illustrate some of the insidious marketing tactics that are already at work by some manufacturers.

Standards relating to the substances that can be allowed in organic food production fall to the recommendation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) which reports its recommendation to the Secretary of Agriculture. The recommendations are implemented by the USDA and take on the form of the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Over the last decade, rather than decreasing or remaining static, this list has grown from 77 allowed substances to 250. It also now includes the use of numerous synthetic food additives to aid in the production of processed foods. Under the purviewand guidelines set forth for the NOSB, for a substance to remain on the list it must be assessed in the following three categories:

  • Category 1: Are there adverse impacts on humans or the environment?

  • Category 2: Is the substance essential for organic production?

  • Category 3: Is the substance compatible with organic production practices?

Most recently the status of carrageenan as an allowed substance has been under scrutiny by many activists and leaders in the organic foods movement. Carrageenan is a thickener and emulsifier that is derived from seaweed. It has a documented but controversial record of causing gastrointestinal health issues. It is also disputed as to how necessary of an additive it actually is, as many dairy and like products have been produced for decades without the use of this thickener/emulsifier. There have also been known environmental impacts in the production of carrageenan, yet this additive has been on the list of allowed substances for organic food since the mid-’90s. If you refer back to the assessment categories, you will find that the use of this additive in organic products violates two if not all three of the qualifiers.

This is only one example of how easily organic standards can be corrupted and product integrity can be eroded and jeopardized. My next example is a bit more deceptive and directly preys on the consumer. Back in October of 2011, the Cornucopia Institute released a report entitled “Cereal Crimes” that goes in depth about some disingenuous ploys that larger food producers have been using in the cold cereal market (and in reality, throughout the food production industry). This report highlights the increasing trend of many food producers labeling and hailing their products as “natural.” The term “natural” has NO legal definition, standards, or labeling requirements. This means that producers that spray their fields with toxic pesticides, process foods with known carcinogens, or use 100% GMO crops can (and will) label their foods “natural.”

What’s even more disheartening is that many of us are falling for this simple trickery. According to a survey from the Hartman Group roughly 60% of consumers believe that the label “natural” suggests the absences of pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs. Another survey conducted by the Shelton Group revealed that 31% of consumers felt the label “natural” was the most desirable eco-friendly label, compared to 14% who felt “100% organic” was preferable. Yet again, another study from the research firm Context Marketing showed that 50% of consumers rated the “natural” label as important or very important, whereas only 35% of consumers felt the same values applied with the “organic” label.

What could be more devious than confusing consumers with disingenuous labeling?
How about some good old bait and switch tactics? Back in 2008 one cereal producer who previously manufactured only 100% organic cereal, and built their consumer loyalty on that fact, switched almost overnight to using cheaper conventional ingredients. What they didn’t switch was the price or packaging, other than removing the now illegal USDA Organic seal. They also did not change the barcode which misrepresented this significant change in product to retailers. Nowadays this brand’s logo has changed to include the phrase “All Natural” but they are still charging the same organic price. According to analyses done by the Cornucopia Institute, it is common for these “natural” but conventional products to be priced closer to their organic counterparts than the more similar conventional products. At times these “natural” products may be even higher priced than their organic counterparts.

So maybe by now you’re asking, “That’s fine, but I like product/brand ‘X.’ I’m willing to pay a little more for it. It’s my choice as a consumer; where is the harm?” In reality individual consumer choicehas a significant impact. Most of these “natural” product lines are owned by BIG foods companies that have larger economies of scale in distribution and manufacturing as well as lower cost of raw goods than typically smaller dedicated organic manufacturers. Also, there is a significant impact on dedicated organic farmers. Given the manufacturing shift away from organic to “natural,”/ there has been a significant increase in demand for these less expensive conventional crops, which has caused a drop in demand for organics, and accordingly a drop in market price for organic crops. Many farmers who began to invest and transform their farmland to organic standards have stopped and converted back to conventional practices because of this shift in demand. This switch from organic to conventional farmland has huge and numerous impacts on our local and global environments, not to mention the impact on farm-workers’ health. So yes, there is harm in continuing to support these “natural” products over organic ones and that harm runs the gamut from people to environs.

Since the time that the “Cereal Crimes” report has been released there has been no notable action taken by the producers of these “natural” products. One brand and one brand alone out of the myriad that were investigated in this report has slowly begun the process of signing up for the Non-GMO Verified Project. This is a step in the right direction, however the price for their “natural” Non-GMO verified product is still almost equal to that of its organic counterparts and their product is still derived from conventional crops treated with toxic pesticides.

Changes at the Co-op
It is our role as consumers and retailers to take action with our dollars, since it appears the big business producers of “natural” products won’t. In the coming months (and with all future product additions) both Eastside and Westside Grocery departments are going to be working to eliminate some of our offerings from “natural” producers that are essentially price gouging the market and green-washing the organic movement. We’ll be starting with the cereal aisles as that was the impetus for these recent reports and studies. We will then work towards implementing this change throughout the Grocery departments. With our existing products, if we currently offer eight varieties from a “natural” brand, we might cut that offering down to the top two. Whenever possible we’ll do our best to offer a comparable organic or conventional product to match what we’re looking to cut so long as it’s not another “natural” product trying to earn an organic shelf price. That said, both Matt at the Westside and I recognize that we are a community-owned Co-op. If the Co-op’s Owners want to continue supporting these high cost “natural” product lines we’ll do our best to accommodate those desires based on our Mission Statement and Product Selection Philosophy.

Daniel J Krause

YumTum Delivers

Jolly Bobs

Community Chip

Huntington Learning Center