Will Big Food Change What is Organic?

What is organic? The organic label denotes food products, whether animal and plant-based, that have been grown without additives such as pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. The sales of organic foods have exploded in recent years. Consumers have become much smarter about food quality and they are buying more organic and natural food and beverage products.

The organizations which track food sales estimate that sales of natural and organic food will continue at a double-digit growth rate to reach $33 billion by 2009. For the period between 2005 to 2008, there has been a remarkable market growth of 67.6% in the organic market.

Projections for this market indicate strong single-digit growth through 2013.

However, consumers may not know that “what is organic” is changing. In the past decade, due to market consolidation, “organic” food brands and products have been altered considerably.

In particular, cheap substitutions are being sold as organic food in discount stores such as Wal-Mart. These cheap organic foods may sport the USDA’s organic label, but evidence suggests they may be produced by non-organic methods or have non-organic ingredients.

What Does the Organic Label Mean?

The USDA set national organic regulations in 2002 and stated that all foods, whether grown in the US or abroad, must meet these standards to be able to sport the USDA organic label. The regulations include these terms:

  • 100% Organic = 100% of ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water.
  • Certified Organic = 95% of ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients = At least 70% of ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water.
  • No Label Claims = Less than 70% of ingredients are certified organic.

This sounds like a good guide for what is organic. But in 2003, only 4 months after these regulations took effect, Congress passed legislation permitting “organic” livestock to be fed conventional, non-organic feed, (which may include antibiotics and pesticides) when organic feed is twice the price of the conventional feed.

Can You Trust the USDA Organic Label?

In some cases, no. The Cornucopia Institute reports that the USDA has been widely criticized for its lax oversight of the organic program. Not only have they allowed apparent and overt violations of the organic standards on livestock operations, allowing the organic label on products which were produced from “feedlot” milking and living conditions (as many as 10,000 cows or confining as many as 100,000 laying hens), the USDA has allowed dozens of new foreign-based certification agencies to oversee offshore organic production without determining whether the certifiers are qualified under NOP law.

What is Organic When Big Food is Involved?

The organic food industry has been undergoing major shifts in power in the past decade. As America’s largest food retailers have discovered the profitability of the “organic” label, they have been acquiring smaller organic food producers in an attempt to profit from the organic market.

Once these markets are taken over by these global corporations, the local organic choices for the consumer become limited. The “organic” designation will become meaningless as large food retailers force smaller independent farms out of the market, either by choosing the cheap products created through factory farming or charging retail shelf fees so high the local sustainable farm operations won’t be able to afford to buy shelf space for their products.

In a 2001 document titled Report to the National Farmers Union: Consolidation In Food Retailing And Dairy, the authors state that “horizontal integration through consolidation has occurred very rapidly in the last three years. Today, Kroger, Albertson’s, Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Ahold USA account for 42% of retail food sales in the United States, whereas in 1997 the top five food retailers had only 24% of the market…Retailers are now in a position to dictate terms to food manufacturers who then force changes back through the system to the farm level…as the balance of power shifts to the retailers, smaller entities in all parts of the food system are being left out. The retailer fees for “shelf space” at most of the larger retail stores present barriers to smaller processors and/or farmers wishing to place products on the retail shelf. Such restructuring presents critical problems for consumers and communities in inner-urban and rural areas that are no longer profitable for global food clusters.”

Just Who Owns Organic?

To illustrate the extent of the Big Food’s reach into the organic market, take a look at this page containing a chart created by Dr. Phil Howard of Michigan State University. The chart shows what companies actually own the organic labels you see at your local food store.

There are a few independent organic food companies still out there. On this page, there is a chart which shows the organic labels which are still independently owned (as of July 2007).

The Cheapening of Organic Food

The “cheapening of organic” seems to be inevitable when mega-retailers like Wal-Mart get involved. The Wal-Mart business model of selling products below market prices is in direct conflict with the higher costs associated with organic farming methods. How can Wal-Mart sell organic products below market prices without taking a profit hit? The answer is that WalMart’s definition of what is organic doesn’t always match the national organic standards.

In the Spring of 2006, Wal-Mart announced it would dramatically increase its organic product offerings. While the hope was that the product volume driven by Wal-Mart’s size would help grow sustainable farming, Wal-Mart has instead taken the low, cheap road.

Instead of supporting the local small farmer, they have established partnerships with existing major agribusiness companies, most of which have no track record in the organic marketplace.

For instance, look at Wal-Mart’s organic milk offerings. Wal-Mart has a relationship with Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy processor, as an outlet for Dean’s “Horizon brand” of organic milk. Dean/Horizon has been under intense scrutiny for sourcing as much as half of its milk from large industrial-scale dairies that milk as many as 10,000 cows in feedlot-like conditions.

According to the Cornucopia Institute: “The USDA is currently looking into legal complaints alleging that two Dean-owned factory dairies have skirted federal organic regulations in terms of their livestock management practices.”

In addition, the Cornucopia Institute reports that Wal-Mart had entered into a contract with Aurora Organic Dairy, based in Boulder, Colorado, to supply private-label organic milk under the “Great Value” label.

Aurora has a sordid history in terms of its reputation in the organic industry. Like Dean Foods, their corporate-owned factory farms are currently being investigated for confining their cattle in feedlots with little if any access to pasture as required by the National Organic Standards. They are also being investigated for buying replacement cattle and feed on non-organic sources. And Aurora produces or buys 100% of their milk from giant industrial factory farm dairies, a practice which is in direct conflict with organic consumer wishes.

Prominent articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, and many other national media outlets, including National Public Radio, expose the fact that Wal-Mart has knowledge of the serious accusations against both of these firms. Wal-Mart’s dependence on factory farms for supplying cheaper organic dairy products in the marketplace is an overt example of their historic management philosophy of sourcing products from least expensive supplier regardless of its impact on product quality, the environment, or our nation’s workers. (Source: http://www.cornucopia.org/2008/01/wal-mart-organics/)

Even Whole Foods, the most well-known name in organic groceries, is participating in this cheapening of organic foods. According to Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Whole Foods had adopted the grocery industry’s standard regional distribution system. Instead of buying produce from local, family-owned farms, buyers place huge orders with the two big corporate organic growers, Earthbound Farms and Grimmway Farms. These companies dominate the organic product market, producing as much as 80% of some organic crops sold in America. In addition, Pollan reports that the “free-range” poultry sold at Whole Foods only has access to grass for the last two weeks of life.

So How Do I Buy Real Organic Foods?

The solution is to know what is organic and where your organic food comes from.

Buy produce from your local farmer’s market, or grow your own vegetables and fruit. Raise your own chickens for fresh eggs. Find a local source for raw milk, free-range poultry, and grass-fed animal products. (See resources below).

Take a trip to the farms and ranches that offer organic foods. Talk to the ranchers and farmers running these operations. Ask questions about how they farm, how they feed their stock, what methods they use to kill pests or treat sickness.

And expect to pay more for the loving care that sustainable farmers use in the production of your food. It’s well worth it. Whatever extra you pay for this food, you’ll save in the long run in lower medical bills and drug costs.

Resources for Further Reading

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