Will big companies change organic food, or vice versa?

Posted by
July 13, 2012

This past spring, a “study” done by Loyola University professor Kendall J. Eskine, added yet another popgun to the anti-organic arsenal of pesticide purveyors and various other enterprises that see the organic revolution as a threat to their profits. The study somehow managed to come to the “scientific” conclusion that people who seek out organic food are selfish jerks who wouldn’t help their own grandma across the street.

This was determined by Eskine showing pictures of comfort foods, such as brownies and ice cream and then pictures of labeled organic vegetables, to 62 undergraduate students. The students then looked at (you can’t make this stuff up) pictures of people engaging in bad deeds, such as a politician accepting a bribe, and were asked to judge that behavior. To the shock and dismay of all, the students who looked at organic veggie photos were less likely to have good moral standards and said they wouldn’t volunteer as much as those who saw the brownie photo.

Certainly Eskine’s analysis of students looking at photos of food was less than stellar science. But it made the talk-show rounds, with Dr. Dale Archer, a clinical psychiatrist, further promoting the idea in an article in Psychology Today, “Does Going Organic Make You a Jerk,” a variant of which was also featured on FoxNews.com.

Dr. Archer described individuals who opt for an organic diet as suffering from “moral superiority syndrome, “ and advised that buying organic does not mean you’re “better, smarter, greener or necessarily making more of a difference in the world than your McDonald’s chomping neighbor.”

Of course, such outmoded portrayals of organic consumers as snobs and elitists are quickly dispelled these days by a visit to almost any large supermarket. The reality is that organic products (including brownies)  are now being offered by scores of  big food conglomerates, having long long ago escaped from your local health food store into the marketing mainstream.

Just about all the major food companies, in fact, have now recognized organic’s potential as an engine of profitability and hopped aboard the train.  Which is why the lead story in the Business section of last Sunday’s New York Times has caused such a stir within the organic community itself. The piece, headlined “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?,” examined the question of whether the dominance of these huge corporations in the organic marketplace is enabling them to compromise the strict standards that govern organic products and ingredients. Or, as the subhead stated, “To Purists, Big Companies Are Co-opting an Industry.”

One of the more negative responses was posted at the website of The Organic Trade Association (OTA), which describes the piece as having “done a disservice to families seeking healthy choices for their children and farmers choosing organic to stay in business because it does not present a balanced picture about the U.S. organic process.”

Pointing out that  in order to earn organic certification, “everyone must follow the same regulation and meet the same requirements regardless of size or ownership,” the OTA goes on to contend: “The use of the USDA Organic seal on well-known brands has helped raise consumer awareness of organic,” which has permitted the sector’s annual sales to surpass $30 billion and created jobs at four times the national average. Among the results it cited have been “increasingly fewer pesticides applied to soil and waterway,” “fewer antibiotics given to livestock,” and “options for families looking for healthy food.”

How ‘size matters’ from another perspective

Other commentators acknowledge that some of the concerns raised in the Times piece by Stephanie Strom  regarding corporate influence over organic criteria are not without merit – but also maintain that this should  in no way discourage people from opting for organic products. Grist Food Editor Twilight Greenaway, for example, in an article reposted by the Organic Consumers Association, asks, “Could organic be a more rigorous standard free of corporate interest? Absolutely. Will I continue to rely on the label to guide some of my food choices? You bet I will.”

While noting that she share’s OTA’s  concerns, Greenaway maintains that “if the New York Times article does little else but raise people’s awareness about the fact that there is a board of individuals constantly discussing what exactly ‘organic’ means, and that the standards they uphold are vulnerable to corporate influence, that’s probably a good thing.” She goes on to point out that the fact that there are advocacy groups campaigning to keep additives such as DHA and carrageenan out of organic food “is also a good thing. In the case of most conventional food, there is no discussion at all, let alone an intensive investigation. It’s all relative; but given the way Big Food has shaped the rest of our food system, organic is still the best we have.”

Concurring in those sentiments is Alexis Baden-Mayer, the OTA’s political director, (who was quoted in the Times.). “I hope this type of article does not discourage people from buying organic,” but rather “informs them about how carefully each ingredient is vetted before it goes into organic,” she told Food Identity Theft. “No other food agency is looking into ingredients the way the Organic Standards Board is.” And while acknowledging that big corporations would often like to cut corners in creating organic versions of their regular products, she believes “large companies that are not 100 percent organic should be able to offer organic food on a mass scale without cutting corners.”

And then Baden-Mayer summed up what I thought was the most effective counter-argument to the concerns raised in the Times: “I don’t see why organic shouldn’t be the norm. I’d like to see conventional companies transition to organic and offer a greater and greater proportion of their food in organic form.”

In other words, now that those “Big Food” conglomerates have opted to commit at least part of their efforts to the organic revolution, rather than simply worrying about their impact on standards, we should be focusing on harnessing their vast marketing resources to bring the benefits of that revolution to an ever greater segment of the public.  So that perhaps one day, in the not-too-distant future, those companies will have become “organicized” to the point where eating organic food will be considered as commonplace as chomping on a McDonald’s is today. And the average consumer will definitely have become better, smarter, greener, and – yes – even morally superior as a result. To say nothing of a whole lot healthier