Organic Food Movement Reaches Critical Mass

Like some counter-culture version of the Manhattan Project, the organic movement progressed for decades pretty much unnoticed.

By John K. Ashby, Contributing Editor

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The same goes double for Dean Foods Co., Dallas - literally double with their Silk Soy and Horizon organic milk divisions giving Dean perhaps the biggest single footprint in the natural/organic segment of the store. After Steve Demos (the founder of Silk Soymilk) achieved megalithic success with Silk Soy dairy alternative, Dean picked up the ball and is running with it, filling more and more dairy cases with Silk Soy and its own Horizon organics dairy and dairy alternative products.


Also growing dramatically - in part the result of the organic industry's success - is the concept of related social responsibility.

Dean Foods, for example, rounds out the consumer perception of the company as environmentally responsible in many ways, declaring, "As a leader in sustainable business practices, Dean Foods and its WhiteWave Foods division recognize the importance of supporting research and education efforts aimed at better understanding the benefits of organic foods." The company recently donated $100,000 to the Organic Center for Education and Promotion to further advance these efforts.

Moreover, Horizon organic and Silk purchase wind energy in quantities to account for 100 percent of their energy use. Their goal is to further strengthen these companies commitment to health and wellness for the planet as well as the consumers.

Whole Foods Market is a leader in this "behind the shelves" application of "good for you, good for the earth" philosophy. The company utilizes 20 percent - more than 70,000 megawatt hours - of a variety of renewable energy forms including wind, solar, geothermal, and small-hydro. It's also active in the Animal Compassion Foundation, donates significantly to environmental and local charities and the company's commitment to its team members is evident in having landed on Fortune magazine's Best 100 places to work in America list.

On the role of organics, Dean's mission states: " ‘Good for You, Good for the Earth.' More consumers are taking a closer look at how their food choices impact their overall health and well-being. Horizon organic gives families a choice they can feel good about. By eating organic foods, you're making a delicious and healthful choice for yourself, your family, even your planet."

Con Agra owns LightLife Vegetarian Foods, but their larger Hunt's division has grabbed the organic brass ring with a line of organic tomato products. The company also introduced an organic, trans fat-free version of Orville Redenbacher's organic Microwave Popcorn.

Basic ingredients

Karen Mannheimer, vice president of natural products for Kerry Ingredients Inc.'s Teterboro, N.J.-based Mastertaste Inc. division, explains the company's interest in the organic market. "About four years ago we became interested in organics both from the perspectives of the growing marketplace as well as the stewardship of the environment. The conventional food industry is relatively stagnant while the organic industry is growing. It's the ‘Whole Foods' phenomenon - regular people are shopping at Whole Foods."

Explaining that the Whole Foods customer base is an extremely wide one, not at all like the customer base for a health food store would have been even just five years ago, Mannheimer notes how the market has changed: "Consumers are looking toward organic as the seal of approval that the food doesn't have ingredients in it that are bad for you."

Mastertaste originally became organically certified to sell its organic essential oils from an international organic spice and essential oil trader, Forestrade. These organic ingredients are used in foods, beverages and especially high volume in the aromatherapy/personal care market. The company's other organic product line is "Crystals" - freeze dried fruits and vegetables to provide color, flavor and sweetness to organic products.

Mannheimer sums up, "What we do by selling organic products causes more land to be planted in organic crops hence supporting sustainable farming where fewer chemical pesticides and herbicides are used."


One huge problem for organic foods is genetically modified organisms (GMOs) If grown near or next to organic crops, genetically modified crops can cross-pollinate (to a different extent depending on the crop) with the adjacent organics. The result of this contamination is not only the destruction of organic status for the crop but the seed stock as well. In many areas of the world farmers save the seeds. An undiscovered GMO contamination of a crop and the seeds, followed by subsequent use of these seeds by that farmer, can result in that farmer being threatened with a lawsuit for "misappropriating" the GMO intellectual property.

This is more than just a fringe issue. Genetically modified crops not only invalidate organic crops, but can trigger labeling and or outright rejection in some countries. Anheuser-Busch Inc., one of the largest breweries (and purchasers of grain) in the world, recently announced to the state of Missouri that if the state allowed planting of a strain of rice genetically engineered to contain pharmaceutical ingredients, it would refuse to buy any Missouri rice.

In a very few short years, the organic foods industry has grown into a serious contender for a large segment of the food industry, has laid a path for other natural and socially responsible food production claims and laid the ground work for other industries that use agricultural products to move toward an organic label. It will be a lot of fun to see where this goes next.

-John K. Ashby, general manager - ingredients, for California Natural Products, a manufacturer of rice ingredients. He focuses on the nutritional, nutraceutical, functional and organic segments of the food industry.


In 1985, a group of organic producers and handlers established what would become the Organic Trade Association. Since its inception, the association has been a key player in shaping both the regulatory and market environment for the organic products industry. The Organic Trade Association has long sought national organic standards. Its efforts finally bore fruit in 2001.

On Dec. 21, 2000, the U. S. Department of Agriculture published a final rule to implement national organic standards. The organic rule went into effect April 21, 2001, and was fully implemented on October 21, 2002.

As promised by USDA, the regulations prohibit the use of irradiation, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms in organic production; reflect NOSB recommendations concerning items on the national list of allowed synthetic and prohibited natural substances; prohibit antibiotics in organic meat and poultry; and require 100 percent organic feed for organic livestock.

The role of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in this process is to serve as an advisory board to USDA. NOSB recommendations regarding substances that are allowed and prohibited are part of the final rule.

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