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Organic Foods Travel a Rocky Road
‘Impostors’ and ‘interlopers’ sow confusion
by Ted Agres
Organic foods have moved from the margins of the U.S. food industry to the mainstream. Nearly 90% of all retail food stores now sell organically produced items. Natural food retailers, such as Whole Foods Market, with 270 stores nationwide, have proliferated since the first Whole Foods opened in Austin, Texas, in 1980. Organic food is a big business, with sales expected to reach $27 billion this year. While still small compared to the overall $670 billion market, organic food has been the fastest-growing sector of U.S. agriculture in the past decade, with annual sales growth approaching 20%. And as it matures, the organic food industry is learning to flex its marketing, lobbying, and legal muscles.
“Organic foods and organic farming are becoming mainstream and part of Main Street,” U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Kathleen A. Merrigan, PhD, a veteran organic foods proponent who joined the Obama administration last year, recently told a congressional panel. “In 1990, organic was an exotic item in the average grocery store. Times have certainly changed.”
Indeed they have. Last year, more than half (54%) of organic food sales were through mainstream groceries, club stores, and retailers. Natural retailers accounted for 38%, and farmers markets, co-ops, and local and regional outlets made up the balance. Two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic foods at least occasionally, and nearly one-third purchase organic products weekly.
This meteoric rise is due in part to the perception that organic foods are safer, more nutritious, and tastier than those produced by agribusiness. Recent scandals involving Escherichia coli-tainted spinach and massive recalls of eggs and peanut products due to Salmonella concerns have reinforced the view among many consumers that organically grown foods are simply better than their conventional counterparts, and thus worth the extra cost.
But despite these perceptions, organic foods have traveled a rocky road over the years, and confusion abounds. While taste is a matter of, well, taste, the question of whether or not organic foods are safer and more nutritious than conventional foods is still open for debate. And with phrases such as “natural” and “no artificial ingredients” proliferating on the labels of products ranging from canned goods to processed meats and even snack foods, it is no wonder that consumers are confused about what “organic” really means.
Some conventional growers, producers, and even manufacturers who sell fertilizers to organic farmers complicate the issue by misbranding their products in an attempt to command higher prices. “Unfortunately, people after a fast buck will look under all the rocks,” said Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit research and education organization in Boulder, Colo. “But the record of the organic industry itself has been good and is getting better,” he told Food Quality magazine.
—Charles Benbrook, PhD, The Organic Center
Food safety has not gotten the attention it deserves in some segments of the organic community. Food safety does not respect farm boundaries, scale, or systems. It can hit and hurt people in any type of farming situation.
Back to the Future
Organic food production has its roots in preindustrial farming and livestock management methods. But it also applies scientific soil maintenance and replenishment techniques, field diversity, and responsible use of natural, non-synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
“Certified organic” agricultural products are grown and processed according to standards set by the USDA. Growers, producers, and processors are certified by state agencies and USDA-accredited organizations, whose inspectors may audit organic farms annually to verify record keeping and compliance with such requirements as long-term soil management, the use of approved fertilizers and pesticides, and the presence of buffers between organic and neighboring conventional fields.
Products labeled “100% organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients, while those labeled “organic” must contain at least 95% organic content. Only these products can display the “USDA Organic” seal. Processed foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to three of them on the label. Processed products containing less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the term “organic” other than to identify the specific ingredients in the ingredients statement. A civil penalty of up to $11,000 for each offense can be levied against knowing violators, although only a handful of such penalties have been imposed over the years.
USDA certification does not address food safety or quality issues, however. While proponents insist that organic food is more nutritious, studies are inconclusive. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no difference in nutritional quality between organically and conventionally produced crops and animal products. The report, based on a meta-analysis of 55 clinical studies conducted from 1958 to 2008, found that conventionally produced crops had a significantly higher content of nitrogen, while organically produced crops had a significantly higher content of phosphorus and higher titratable acidity. “No evidence of a difference was detected for the remaining eight of 11 crop nutrient categories analyzed,” the study found. Further, no evidence of any nutrient differences was found in livestock products.
But a separate meta-analysis, conducted by The Organic Center’s Dr. Benbrook, who holds a doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that organic produce was about 25% more nutritious, with higher concentrations of important polyphenols and antioxidants. “Most studies in the 1980s focused simply on mineral and vitamin levels,” Dr. Benbrook said. “The differences documented in this study are sufficiently consistent and sizable [to conclude that] organic plant-based foods are, on average, more nutritious.”
Organic farms are far smaller in acreage and far less numerous than conventional farms. Of the nearly 320 million acres of farmland in the U.S., only 4.8 million acres (1.5%) are organic. Similarly, only 14,540 farms out of more than 2.2 million nationwide are organic (fewer than 1% of the total). Nevertheless, food safety concerns cut across all segments of food production. “Food safety has not gotten the attention it deserves in some segments of the organic community,” Dr. Benbrook said. “Food safety does not respect farm boundaries, scale, or systems. It can hit and hurt people in any type of farming situation.”
Food safety legislation passed by the House of Representatives and pending in the Senate would require companies to implement safety plans and shift oversight from the USDA to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which would have the authority to seize unsafe food shipments, order recalls, and fine violators (see “Food Fight” in Food Quality, June/July 2009, pp. 16-23). The Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure (S. 510) when it convenes for its lame duck session in mid-November.
Many organic proponents, among others, are concerned that the legislation imposes too many requirements on small farmers and producers and grants too much authority to the FDA. “Most of the food safety risks happen at larger facilities where they aggregate products from many farms,” said Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Winona. “The bill should address food safety concerns based on risk and not impose unreasonable barriers and bureaucratic expectations that may force some producers out of business,” Riddle told Food Quality.
Playing Fast and Loose
As a rule, organic growers and producers are philosophically committed to their values and principles. Not surprisingly, they chafe at impostors and interlopers. “We’d like to see the [USDA National Organic] Program more strongly enforce its certification standards and employ punitive measures for producers who cut corners or flat-out cheat,” said Will Harris, president of the Georgia Organics board of directors and owner of the largest certified organic farm in the state.
The organic community tends to rally to protect its franchise. A class action lawsuit was filed by consumers and organic advocates in 2007 against Aurora Dairy Corp., the nation’s largest provider of store-brand organic milk, claiming the company had deceptively labeled its products as coming from small farms with open pastures. The suit was filed after The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, claimed that much of Aurora’s milk comes from industrial-scale operations in Texas and not from smaller organic farms in Colorado. Aurora has denied the claims, and the case is pending.
—Jim Riddle, University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research and Outreach Center
Most of the food safety risks happen at larger facilities where they aggregate products from many farms. The bill [S. 510] should address food safety concerns based on risk and not impose unreasonable barriers and bureaucratic expectations that may force some producers out of business.
For many growers, the future of organic foods in the U.S. may hinge on legal and other efforts to halt the planting and use of genetically engineered (GE) crops, especially alfalfa and sugar beets, on grounds that pollen drift can contaminate organic and other non-GE crops. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that barred the sale and planting of Monsanto Co.’s GE Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds until and unless the USDA has deregulated the product, a process that will require the agency to complete an environmental impact assessment.
The issue is more than philosophical: If organic crops become contaminated by GE plants, they often cannot be sold as organic on the domestic market or even exported as conventional crops to foreign countries, many of which have strict requirements regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “This is a large, unresolved issue,” Riddle said, because even though the source of contamination can be traced genetically, the manufacturer/ patent holder is not held liable for financial damages.
“This issue is hurting and affecting all farmers,” said Michael Sligh, a founding member of the National Organic Coalition, an advocacy group in Pine Bush, N.Y. “This must not be misunderstood as a fight between farmers, or between environmentalists versus farmers, but as an urgent need for overall market clarity and policy fairness,” Sligh told a congressional panel. “It is one of corporate responsibility and the need for real governmental oversight.” Preliminary discussions are reportedly underway concerning a possible coexistence framework that would compensate farmers for GE-related crop losses.
In June, 56 members of the House and Senate from both parties urged the USDA not to deregulate Monsanto’s GE alfalfa. “Organic feed is already expensive and in short supply,” the legislators wrote, arguing that if organic alfalfa becomes contaminated, it will greatly compound the feed shortage and increase operating costs for organic dairy farms. USDA officials say no decision will be made until after they complete an environmental assessment some time next year.