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'Organic' label little more than a marketing tool for food, critics say

By Kylene Kiang
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

September 10, 2006


Washington — At the local supermarket, the organic fruit and vegetable display is a frequent stop for health-conscious consumers. But turn to the next aisle and shoppers are likely to find a different array of "natural" and "organic" foods.

All-natural potato chips. Organic breakfast burritos. On the frozen-food aisle, a shopper can unearth multiple varieties of organic three-cheese lasagna.

Some organic farmers and activists say that in the United States the organic label, once the symbol of foods produced by environmentally friendly means, has with time been cheapened into a gimmicky marketing tool.

And as mainstream supermarket chains increase their clutch on the lucrative organic industry, the same critics contend that big business is developing a stranglehold on efforts to tighten national organic standards and regulations. Big businesses entering the growing market counter that simply by doing so, they are benefiting both the environment and consumers.

By Department of Agriculture standards, the "USDA organic" seal means that at least 95 percent of the ingredients in the product are farmed without using chemicals, hormones, pesticides or any method regarded as harmful to the environment.

Organic or sustainable farming techniques can include using ducks and insects for pest and weed control, water conservation and natural methods of soil replenishment. In the past, supporting organic farming also meant favoring locally grown food over mass-produced varieties that are often grown using greater quantities of fossil fuels for production and transport.

On store shelves, the line between organic and mass-produced has blurred. Tostitos now offers organic tortilla chip selections. Frito-Lay also has introduced a brand of "natural" Doritos.

"It is sort of a marketing gimmick," said registered dietitian Cindy Moore, director of nutrition therapy at the Cleveland Clinic. She added that not all organic foods are equal. "If you have a product with limited nutrients, making them with organic products isn't going to make it better."

USDA spokeswoman Joan Shaffer said the organic label is a "marketing program" that only specifies how the food was processed and has no indication of food safety or nutrition....

Spawned in 1970s

The organic movement gained attention in the 1970s when the government banned the pesticide DDT. Spawned in response to the often-toxic practices of mass agriculture, the movement was seen as an eccentricity of the Earth-loving hippie set. Organic foods were not simply about good eating, but doing good for the environment and promoting a healthier, more sustainable place in which to live.

Consumers now, however, tend to equate "organic" with "healthy." But that comparison is often not accurate, said Brad Stufflebeam, an organic farmer based in Brenham, Texas, who noted the explosion of processed foods on supermarket shelves with "organic" labels.

"Just because it's organic cereal with organic sugar doesn't make it healthy," Stufflebeam said.

On food packaging, "natural" has no relation to organic and only implies that the product contains no artificial ingredients or artificial food coloring, Moore said. " 'Natural' has nothing to do with how the food was grown, handled or processed."

No additives

Studies have shown some health benefits of eating organic foods, especially in developing children whose bodies are less able to deal with pesticide residue often found on conventional fruits and vegetables. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration permits the use of more than 300 synthetic food additives in conventional foods. USDA-certified organic foods contain none of these additives.

Aside from possible pesticide residue, "if you compare organically grown foods to conventionally grown foods, there is no significant difference in the nutrient profile between the two," Moore said. For example, both organic and conventional strawberries have relatively the same amount of carbohydrates, fiber, and vitamins and minerals.

Moore said it is helpful for consumers to evaluate why they might be choosing organic food, whether it is for health reasons — to decrease possible risk of cancer by avoiding foods with pesticides — or for environmental reasons — to protect the water supply, encourage biodiversity or prevent soil erosion on farmlands.

There might also be social-consciousness reasons someone would support small farms or show concern about the impact on farm workers' health and rights, she added.

Some critics believe today's burgeoning organic market has turned into the industry it once fought. Seeds of Change, an organic company that sells rice, grains and complementary sauces, has been owned by M&M Mars since 1997. Food bar and smoothie maker Odwalla began with "three friends, a few boxes of oranges and a simple vision," according to the company's Web site, which makes no mention that it was purchased by Coca-Cola Co. in 2001.

Since 1997, the organic foods business has grown by an average 18.4 percent annually, amassing $13.8 billion in consumer sales last year. About 23 percent of consumers say they regularly buy organic goods, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Organic foods now make up about 2.5 percent of total food sales in the country.

National chains like Wal-Mart and Safeway are getting in on the action.

Earlier this year, Wal-Mart said it intends to double its number of organic products. And that list is diverse: pastas, olive oil, tea, peanut butter, fresh herbs, packaged salads, sour cream, seafood and a line of baby clothing made with organic cotton.

"Although we have sold organic food products for some time, our customers have not always thought of Wal-Mart as a place to find them," said company spokeswoman Karen Burk. "We want them to know that we have these products, and that we have them at prices that are better than those offered by the competition."

And, to the discontent of some organic farmers, Safeway stores like Texas-based Randall's supermarkets are touting their own label, O Organics, eliminating the middleman and providing organic foods at a lower price.

Organic farmer Stufflebeam concedes that the increased corporate presence in the market has probably taken business away from some independent organic farms, but, at the same time, mainstream chains are increasing public awareness of organic foods in general. Business has never been better, he says, adding that customers who want a share of the roughly 100 different varieties of heirloom vegetables and herbs Stufflebeam grows will have to put their name on a one-year waiting list.

Complaints filed

Some organic advocates, however, cite concerns over loosening regulations, pointing to alleged violations of the USDA organic standard by Horizon Organic and Aurora Organic Dairy, two hugely popular brands sold nationwide by vendors including Whole Foods Market.

Recently, a Wisconsin organic advocacy group, the Cornucopia Institute, filed a complaint with the USDA about Horizon Organic. The USDA is reviewing the charges to decide whether an investigation is necessary.

Cornucopia charges that Horizon, the nation's largest organic milk producer, is ignoring Agriculture Department rules requiring that organic dairy cows have "access to pasture."

Horizon, owned by milk bottling giant Dean Foods, said in a statement that the allegations are without merit and that the company works closely with its certifiers to ensure that each dairy is fully certified organic and meets the USDA's national organic standards.

The Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group, claims that about 40 percent of organic milk comes from establishments that obtain calves from conventional establishments, where they have little or no access to pasture.

Locally grown movement

To counteract the bigger, better, cheaper trend in organic foods, Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said a movement for supporting locally grown produce is "small, but growing."

Buying locally grown produce has become the latest mark of the consumer who wants to conserve fuel and reduce pollution created by shipping food internationally.

The locally grown produce movement is about preserving farms as a community resource.

Stufflebeam, the 35-year-old organic farmer who runs a 6-acre central Texas plot called Home Sweet Farm, believes that consumers want to develop good relationships with the people who grow their food. He calls it "the ultimate form of accountability."


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