What’s Big Food Doing in the Organic Business?
One reason I try to buy organic is because I like to have some assurance that the food I eat is wholesome — produced with no synthetic agents, no extraneous ingredients, produced as it once was, before economies of scale superseded quality of food as the chief consideration. But organics are being swallowed up by Big Food, as Stephanie Strom reports in a recent New York Times piece, and “Big Organic” may prove to be a contradiction in terms.
“What makes food corporations so intensely interested in the organic business,” Marion Nestle explains in “What to Eat,” published in 2006, “is the pace at which the market for these foods is growing. The overabundance of food in the United States limits the growth of the so-called ‘conventional’ food producers… to 1 or 2 percent a year. Organics, in contrast, are booming. Since 1990, sales have increased by about 20 percent annually — a phenomenal rate by industry standards… The most attractive feature of organics to the food industry is this: customers are willing to pay more for organic foods. It is easy to understand why any big food company would want to get into this business.”
Many consumers may not realize that Bear Naked, Kashi and Morningstar Farms belong to Kellogg, Naked Juice to PepsiCo, Back to Nature to Kraft, Cascadian Farm to General Mills and Healthy Valley, Spectrum Organics and Earth’s Best to Hain Celestial. (For more, see this Organic Industry Structure chart by Michigan State University professor Phil Howard.) “Then again,” Strom writes, “giant corporations don’t exactly trumpet their role in the industry.” And their discretion may have to do with the fact that for many consumers, going big can only signify a compromise to core organic values and principles.
One organic purist, Eden Foods CEO Michael J. Potter, believes that “Big Food has co-opted — or perhaps corrupted — the organic food business,” Strom writes. The industry has undue influence on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which sets the standards for the organic food business. By law, only two “handlers,” or representatives of companies that process organic food, may sit on the board at a time, so that the majority of the 15 board seats are “reserved for independent voices from the organic community, not corporate shills,” Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, said in a report. He alleges that “the illegally constituted board, with its agribusiness bias, has resulted in a number of dangerous or questionable synthetics being approved for use in organics,” including carrageenan, which was recently re-approved.
University of Illinois College of Medicine physician-scientist Joanne Tobacman addressed the NOSB in May about the use of carrageenan, a seaweed extract, in food production. “Carrageenan is used in food due to its potent chemical effects that improve the texture of food products,” Dr. Tobacman said in her testimony. But these same effects “can lead to harmful biological effects in human cells and in animals exposed to carrageenan.” In fact it “has been used in thousands of biological experiments over several decades, because it predictably causes inflammation.”
That’s an arresting point — that carrageenan is used in experiments precisely because it predictably causes inflammation. It also happens to be used as a food additive. Of course, there are likely other studies out there that presumably prove that carrageenan is perfectly safe for use in food. What I have an issue with is that the number of processing agents and food additives being used to produce organic foods keeps increasing. The first-ever herbicide almost made it onto the approved list in December, Strom reports. With Big Food seated at the table, the number of nonorganic materials approved for use in organic food production has gone up from 77 in 2002 to more than 250 today.
The only way you can be sure that what you’re eating is wholesome is to buy it from a farmer or producer you know and trust, regardless of whether he or she has officially obtained organic certification. The “certified organic” label, besides, may not be living up to its name.
Photo Credit: Bob Doran