Organic By Any Other Name

Sept. 6, 2006
The boom in demand for organic foods and ingredients threatens to outpace supply. Yet some companies are coming under fire for allegedly “fudging” what is truly organic. The question is, do the cows have to be happy for the milk to be organic?

By David Feder, R.D., Editor

We recently reported on how Wal-Mart has decided to retail organic products, and on how this is a significant example of just how huge a trend the organic market is. Check out “The top 6 trends in food processing” at And while you’re at it, you might want to look at some of the 200-plus other articles, news items and white papers we have available online about the organic trend and related issues, including “Synthetic organics out,” “Coffee with a conscience” and “Organic on the mind.” Just type the key words “organic” and “fair trade” into the search box.

The fact that the organic foods and food processing industry is about to have another big growth spurt has led to both a redoubled effort in the legal ring for establishing more comprehensive definitions for what constitutes “organic” and a slew of articles in trade and popular press on the same. At risk of understating, there’s been a definite vocal decamping into two opposing corners on this topic.

And while the legal wrangling continues, the pundits are staking their territory. An editorial in the Amherst (N.Y.) Times last spring stated, “Wal-Mart will now become the 800-pound gorilla among the other, slightly smaller gorillas that have tried repeatedly to weaken the Agriculture Department's definition of what organic means. There is no chance that Wal-Mart will be buying from small, local organic farmers. Instead, its market influence will speed up the rate at which organic farming comes to resemble conventional farming in scale, mechanization, processing and transportation. For many people, this is the very antithesis of what organic should be. People who think seriously about food have come to realize that ‘local’ is at least as important a word as ‘organic.’ The only thing local about Wal-Mart is its shoppers. For ‘Wal-Mart’ and ‘organic’ to make sense in the same sentence, the company will have to commit itself to protecting the Agriculture Department standard that gives ‘organic’ meaning. Otherwise, it will become just another shill word, like ‘new’ or ‘improved.’“

About the same time, an article in the New Yorker covered the same organic ground — albeit more fairly and with great balance. Much of that article focused on San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm Inc. (, which provides the very hungry Whole Foods Markets with much of its organic lettuces and salad mixes. Earthbound is humongous for an organic farm. Thousands of acres, lots of machinery — a perfect example of what has many folks’ noses out of joint.

Then there’s the flap over Horizon dairies. Claims and counterclaims that Horizon cows no longer roam free and have become every bit the drudge-loaded living milk factories as giant dairy-conglomerate cows.

I feel for the cows, and I feel for the land. That’s not just platitudes. I’ve worshipped at the Whole Foods temple from Day 1, when it was a little hole-in-the-wall store on Lamar St. in Austin, Texas. From the time she turned two years old my daughter drank Horizon milk.

But I also want to know, what do the “purists” expect? For decades, the drive was conversion of all food production in the world to organic. Now that the public has been educated sufficiently to push demand sky-high, the freaks are freaking out.

Although not yet fulfilling the goal of “pan-organica” (organic still comprises only a few measly percentage points in the greater food scheme), the organic dream has made almost as much progress in the past five years as in the previous 25.

Does anyone remember the old truism, “You can’t have it both ways?” Wal-Mart and other retail colossi stimulate more people to choose organic options and stimulate demand for growth and certification. Kellogg converting a big portion of its popular cereal line to organic does the same. That’s a good thing. Yes, demand will indeed outstrip supply here and there until balance is achieved. But anyone trying to keep growing kids in clothes that fit can understand such an unavoidable dynamic.

I agree now the organic bug has bitten the multimegacorps there is a danger of a natural dilution of standards. (That word, “natural,” is a case in point. It was so overused by marketers it lost what little meaning it had.) But if we are to have strict definitions of what constitutes organic, they will have to be based on logic, not emotion, and we’ll have to stick by them.

And that’s where concept s such as “local,” “sustainability,” “fair trade” and even “family farmed” can stake their claim. The very real problem with trying to shoehorn so much of the above into the organic designation is that such important descriptors lose their power.

When it comes to labels, we need truth. For that reason alone, “organic” should mean nothing more than organic: plant foods raised in organic soil without pesticides and unnatural fertilizers; meats and dairy from animals raised on organic feed and without hormones and unnecessary antibiotics; and processed foods made with only organic ingredients. Added “fair trade,” “locally produced” or other similar labels will tell their own stories.

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