November 8, 2005
The corporate raid on ‘Organic’
It was bound to happen. Big Corporations are almost always led by bean counters or attorneys, rarely by engineers, scientists or salesmen. That’s why the Fortune 500 crowd almost never comes up with an important new idea on their own. They wait until some little guy dreams up and builds a successful new business. Then a corporate titan buys him out. After a few years the entrepreneur sails off into the Pacific sunset, and the business is homogenized for the global market.
This seems to be happening to the Organic Food Industry. While sales of certified organic products is still only 2% of the food market, it’s the fastest growing segment. Thus Industry giants like Con Agra, Heinz, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft (owned by Altria, formerly Phillip Morris), Dean Foods and J. M. Smucker have moved into organic. They own or control popular natural and organic brands such as Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen, Hain, Rice Dream, Garden of Eatin’, Earth’s Best, Health Valley, Sunrise Organic, Boca Burgers, Back to Nature, Horizon, White Wave, Knudsen and Sante Cruz Organic Juices.
Well this was all fine and dandy until an organic blueberry farmer won a court ruling that no synthetic substances at all should be in USDA certified organic food. While things like baking powder, ascorbic acid and carbon dioxide had been selectively allowed by the Organic Standards Board, there was another category of chemicals and artificial materials being used, like lubricants and disinfectants that are now on the chopping block with the court ruling. As New York Times writer Melanie Warner put it, “Many in the organic community say that these tools of mainstream food processing do not belong in organic production.”
According to Warner, the Organic Trade Association, an industry lobbying group, is trying to get an amendment through Congress to reverse the court decision and, while they are at it, to give the USDA authority to grant temporary exemptions to allow conventionally grown ingredients in organic food when organic versions are not “commercially available.” Altria’s Washington lobbyist on this issue is Abigail Blunt, wife of Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, interim House Majority Leader. Yikes, I’m not even on the same planet as these people!
Another corporate controversy involves the definition of organic milk. The Organic standards that took effect in 2000 require that dairy cows have “access to pasture.” Some big dairy outfits like Dean Food’s Horizon Organic Milk and Aurora Dairy sport the physical layout of industrial dairies but don’t use antibiotics and synthetic hormones. They have been interpreting this phrase to mean that cows need not actually be in the pasture. They prefer to feed their cows a high grain diet that produces more milk. Horizon supplies Walmart, and Aurora sells under store brands like Safeway Select.
A group of small dairy farmers has filed a petition asking USDA to strengthen the rule to require that cows actually be grazed on pasture during the growing season. According to New York Times food writer, Marian Burros, Wild Oats supermarket chain is supporting the status quo because they say it increases the organic milk supply. On the other hand, Whole Foods plans to set a standard that organic milk must come from cows that get at least 30% of their diet from pasture grass for a minimum of 120 days a year.
Organic Valley, a coop of mostly small diary farms, is also sticking to mostly grass fed. Interestingly both Horizon and Aurora say they are adding pasture for their cows. This goes to show that holding the line on organic principles is exactly the right thing to do.
How does the average tree hugger deal with all these obscure technical issues? Well, here’s my take on it.
Big food corporations, like Kraft and Con Agra, don’t sell food so much as they sell an experience, where food is a substrate for convenience and flavor in a bright package. It’s kind of like a cigarette being a “nicotine delivery vehicle.” It’s no accident that supermarket food contains so much palate-pleasing, near-addictive ingredients like salt, sugar and fat or synthetic substitutes. We are really talking about processed foods here.
The serious (or paranoid, if you prefer) healthy eater can substantially bypass this whole controversy by eating just whole foods: fruits, vegetables and minimally processed grains, and free range meats, milk and eggs (if you eat animal products), and obtain these from local farmers you know and trust. Eat what’s in season and learn to preserve or freeze fruits and vegetables while they are abundant.
You can’t be perfect. When I can’t get the local stuff, I sometimes buy nationally distributed, certified organic brands I still trust...like produce from Earthbound Farms and dairy products from Organic Valley. I’m addicted to (fair trade) coffee and chocolate, and I substitute cold, boxed cereals for oatmeal on hot summer days.
Of course all this takes time and people are busy. But putting in the time now can mean good health later — or dock your life span by eating mass produced food. Take your choice.
Craig Volland is coordinator of the Kansas City Food Circle, a not for profit organization that connects eaters with local organic producers in the KC region. For a free copy of the Food Circle’s Directory of Organic and Natural Food Producers call 816-374-5899 or download it at www.foodcircles.missouri.edu (Go to local sources - KC).
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