Greenwashed ‘Organic’ & ‘Natural’ Food Labels
Photo Courtesy Of: iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, has a long history as a marketing and political consultant, and as a lobbyist (working for family farmers).
While he didn’t grow up on a farm, he ended up taking a summer job during his youth with the International Harvester Company. That was his first farm experience.
Later, he was recruited by JI Case, another large agricultural equipment manufacturer.
“I worked in corporate agribusiness,” he explains.
“Then I had a health crisis in the late 70s; I was acutely exposed to pesticides and it injured my immune system…
I was lucky enough to see the preeminent environmental allergist… Theron Randolph… who recommended that, among other things, I go on an all organic diet; that there weren’t many things we could do to relieve the strain on my immune system while I was healing, but controlling your food and your water intake is something you can take control of.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
At the time, he was operating his own farm implement business, which was in a region dominated by the industrial, chemically-intensive farming model. He switched gears and began gardening and farming organically.
“It caused a major professional shift in my life. I ended up doing consulting work for years, for what are now some of the leading organic companies,” he says.
“[T]here wasn’t really a readily available source for organic food until the early to mid-1980s when it started. It kicked into high gear in the 1990s when genetic engineering became an issue; when people became more synthesized to chemicals in their food.
… I helped launch the Organic Valley brand when they began in the late 80s or early 90s… Then I helped found the Cornucopia Institute eight years ago, when it looked like the wheels would fall off of this movement; when the giant corporate agribusinesses that has squeezed family farmers out of conventional farming, and that were responsible for the deterioration in the nutrient level and the safety of our food, were buying out, on a wholesale basis, all the brands that had launched the organic commercial movement.”
The Cornucopia Institute
The Cornucopia Institute is an organic industry watch dog. Their core constituencies are the family farmers across the U.S. Currently, Cornucopia has more organic farmers as members than any other group in the country, and what they lack in financial resources and political influence, they make up for with a coalition of dedicated farmers and passionate consumers and providers of organic foods.
“The secret weapon we have is building bridges between the organic farming community and the consumers… millions of people who passionately give a damn; who really care about the authenticity of the food and respect the people who are doing it,” Kastel says.
“Our goal is to—from a research and educational perspective—empower consumers and wholesale buyers so that they can make good and discerning choices in the market place.”
Organics have Never Been Under Such Dire Threats!
As you will soon learn, organics are now being profoundly threatened by a number of potentially devastating votes that will take place by the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which I will summarize at the end of this article.
We’re in dire need of your involvement, so I urge you to please print out the hyperlinked proxy letter and mail it to Cornucopia for hand delivery at the rapidly approaching NOSB meeting. Corporate lobbyists will be present, and so will the Cornucopia Institute, to counter their obnoxious claims and make sure your voice, in support of organic integrity, is heard. For more details on this meeting, please continue to the end. You’ll no doubt be shocked, and hopefully resolved to help stop this impending madness.
Signed proxy letters should be mailed to:
The Cornucopia Institute
PO Box 126
Cornucopia, Wisconsin 54827
Can You Really Afford NOT to Eat Organic?
As Kastel says, we’re now at the point where we really cannot afford not to buy organic food, even if it is more expensive. The U.S. is forecasted to soon be spending close to 20 percent of our gross national product on healthcare, and the failing health of the American people is a direct result of poor nutrition and toxic foods. Healthcare costs are also the number one cause of individual bankruptcy.
We simply must take organic agriculture seriously if we want good health.
“[I]t’s a matter of prioritizing where we put our money. You know that classic adage, “Pay now or pay later,” Kastel says. “I’d rather pay now and have a better quality of life, especially when it comes to the developing fetuses, lactating mothers, young developing children. Not only are we exposing them to the soup of neurotoxic chemicals during development, but, we’re depriving them of a lot of essential nutrition.
The USDA did a study in 1999 comparing essential nutrient content in our food… They found that about half of the essential nutrients on our food had been reduced by as much as 38 percent [compared to the 1950's].
If [nutrients are] not in the soil; if we’re depleting the soil through industrial processes, and it’s not in the plants, it’s not in our milk, in our meat, it’s not in us. Many of the immune enhancing compounds that make life wonderful, make our food taste wonderful, and also protect us from cancers and a lot of chronic disease. The attributes to organic food are not just the avoidance of toxins. It’s also about what it does have in there, and that’s the superior nutrients.”
I couldn’t agree more. Reprioritizing your budget to spend more where it really counts is imperative if you want to optimize your health. This may mean cutting something else out of your budget, but surely in the long run it will be worth it.
“If families reprioritize, they can have the most wonderful food, and the gift of health, which is… priceless.”
Weeding Out the “Greenwashers”
The Cornucopia Institute has been on the forefront of the movement to keep the organic movement truly organic. As many of you are now aware, there’s plenty of “greenwashing” going on as large corporations try to get a piece of the organic market share.
The very first campaign the Cornucopia Institute launched was on factory dairy farming posing as all organic. Dean Foods, the largest milk bottler in the U.S. (a $ 12 billion company; the size of Monsanto) had just bought Horizon, which was (and still is) the number one organic dairy brand.
“When we started… they were buying from a 10,000-cow farm in California with no pasture. We don’t think that size is the determinant. It’s not about corporate scale. It’s about corporate ethics. There are some corporations that have invested in organics and have done it right—but not Dean Foods.”
The Cornucopia Institute filed a number of legal complaints, which eventually, after much delay, resulted in sanctions against a select number of dairies that failed to conform to organic practices. The Institute has also helped push through stricter organic standards and regulations. The problem now is that despite the fact that the laws exist, large factory farms are not being re-inspected to ensure that they’re conforming to the new, stricter organic standards. All is not lost however…
“We say that there is a higher authority in the United States than the USDA at organics, and that is the organic consumers,” Kastel says. “So we published our first in-depth research study on this issue, organic dairy, and a score card that lists every organic dairy brand in the country: butter, milk, cheese, ice cream—both the name brands and the private label store brands.
The good news is that 90 percent of all organic dairy brands are done with high integrity. They’re really conforming to the expectation of the consumers. They’re grazing their cattle, which increases the nutritional value of the milk or Omega-3s, antioxidants, and CLA. These are really beneficial compounds for human health, but, they are also beneficial to the cow. They live long, healthy, happy lives, as opposed to the animals that are confined in industrial environments.
So consumers get to vote.
Now the gold standard for organic retailing is the 300 or so consumer-owned cooperatives around the country—the natural food cooperative groceries. Almost all of them dropped the Horizon label.”
They’ve replicated that process for organic soy foods and organic eggs, and they’re currently lobbying the USDA to tighten the organic egg standards and enforcement. In this interview, Kastel also discusses The Authentic Almond Project; an effort to overturn the USDA’s new regulation calling for all raw almonds to be pasteurized for safety—a ruling that has devastated the businesses of raw almond growers in California. For more information, please listen to the interview in its entirety, or read through the transcript.
You can click on this link to view a nice graphic or how many products are disguised and “Green Washed”
Many “Natural” Breakfast Cereals and Snack Bars Contain GMO’s
Another report recently published by the Cornucopia Institute investigated “all natural” and organic cereal brands. Shockingly, their independent third-party testing revealed that many trusted natural brands contain genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans—including brands enrolled in the Non-GMO Project.
This is information you simply cannot get anywhere else, and reason alone to support the Institute’s efforts. Natural products that contained, unimaginably, as high as 100 percent genetically modified grains included:
- Nutritious Living®
- General Mills Kix®
Two breakfast cereal products that are currently enrolled in the Non-GMO Project, Barbara’s Bakery’s Puffins and Whole Foods’ 365® Corn Flakes, contained more than 50 percent GM corn… Meanwhile, the research control Cornucopia used, Nature’s Path® USDA certified organic corn flakes, contained only trace amounts of GM contamination (less than 0.5 percent).
“These test results underscore the importance of the organic label, which ensures consumers that the manufacturer uses only non-genetically engineered ingredients. More extensive testing is necessary to draw conclusions regarding the truthfulness of “non-GMO” claims, but these preliminary results point to several problems. First, manufacturers can claim that they avoid purchasing genetically engineered ingredients, but these claims may be meaningless unless they are verified by a third party, such as an organic certifying agent.
In addition, many of the most reputable organic companies have developed their own testing protocols to ensure the purity of their products. Furthermore, the Non-GMO Project, which “enrolls” products before it verifies them as being non-GMO, may give consumers a false sense of security. Our test results reveal that several “enrolled” products were in fact made with GE ingredients.”
The “All Natural” Label is Frequently Misused on Conventional Products
The report also reveals that “natural” products—using conventional ingredients—are frequently priced higher than equivalent organic products, suggesting that some companies are taking advantage of consumer confusion and trust in the “all natural” label… According to the Cornucopia report:
“Since breakfast cereals are popular with children, it is especially important for parents to be aware of the differences between “natural” products, with conventional ingredients, and certified organic ones. Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides and other inputs that are commonly used in “natural” products but prohibited in organics.”
In the featured interview, Kastel further expounds on this issue, and why it’s so important to expose these practices and demand honest labeling:
“Kashi, which is a big name in natural cereals, has a big market share. Not only can you find them in natural food stores, you can find them in Walmart. Kashi is owned by Kellogg’s and highly contaminated with GMOs. It’s very expensive; it’s more expensive than the organic brand. Somebody’s making some money here at the expense of consumers, at the expense of organic farmers who are truly stewarding the land.
Our job is to educate consumers so they can make those marketplace decisions,” Kastel says.
The Cornucopia report clearly shows that the terms “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable, and as a concerned shopper, you need to beware of the differences between the two, or risk paying more for what amounts to little more than a conventional product. According to the report:
“On August 31, 2011, a class action lawsuit was filed against Kellogg/Kashi® for allegedly misleading consumers with its “natural” claims. One Kashi® product in particular, GoLean® Shakes, is composed almost entirely of synthetic and unnaturally processed ingredients, according to the plaintiff.”
The Power of Marketplace Activism
The goal of the Cornucopia Institute is to “shift the market share to the true heroes of this industry, the farmers and their marketing partners, and send a really strong message to the ‘bad actors,’” Kastel explains.
“In this whole world, there are only two kinds of power; money and people. We have the people… The most powerful thing is the marketplace activism, I think, because these corporations listen to money. We have been able to change some of their practices, because [once] they are losing their business, they need to respond…That’s the first leg of the three–legged stool for Cornucopia.
The second would be regulatory, and we are working really hard now… to rein in abuses at the USDA. The Congress has set up the National Organics Standard Board to advise the USDA, and every material used in organics has to be screened by them. Unfortunately, during the Bush administration, they stacked it with corporate players, so we have people like General Mills making the decision for the organic industry…or Dean Foods [Kastel says that despite the fact that the Obama administration is doing better, there's still a way to go in terms of transparency and respecting the will of Congress and the organic community in terms of appointments].
… The third tactical approach here is the courts, and that’s always our last approach because it’s expensive and it takes a lot of time. So, we try to win the easier fights.”
There’s no doubt that the Cornucopia Institute has rich and powerful adversaries. Some of these may appear to be from within the organic movement itself, but don’t be fooled! Giant conventional food manufacturers have quietly purchased a large number of small organic brands. One example he gives is that of Cascadian Farms, a large producer of organic foods that began as a small farm in the Pacific Northwest, in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains. Today, the brand belongs to General Mills, but you won’t find any indication of this ownership on their packaging!
Ditto for Horizon organic milk or Silk soy milk. Nowhere on those cartons will you find any indication that Dean Foods owns these brands.
“When they bought Silk, it was an all organic company,” Kastel says. “Now, it’s almost all conventional. In that case, you’ll see on the Horizon and Silk cartons: “White Wave.” That was one of the original tofu companies. They create this façade.”
If you go to the Cornucopia website, there is a chart titled, “Who Owns Organics?” where you can find out who really owns your favorite organic brand. The primary question is, if it’s owned by a large conglomerate, are they acting ethically and truly conforming to organic standards, which includes sustainable farming methods?
How You Can Support the Movement for Authentic Organics
In terms of funding, the Cornucopia Institute gets its money from:
- Individual members, most of which are organic farmers
- “Urban allies”—concerned consumers who want to support the organic movement
- Foundations that want to support human health and ecological farming
- Organic industry (organic food co-ops making up the greatest number of cornucopia’s commercial members)
I would urge anyone concerned about the state of our food supply to support the work of The Cornucopia Institute by making a tax-deductible donation.
You can also sign up for their newsletter, which will empower you with the knowledge of which brands are authentically organic and respect organic values, and which are not. The Cornucopia Institute will also alert you to important legislation, and how you can make a difference.
So please, do consider making a donation to The Cornucopia Institute.
URGENT Action Items!
The Cornucopia Institute is now in URGENT need of your help, and joining the Institute and/or signing up for their newsletter will assure you get timely updates on these important issues.
At the end of November, the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will vote on a number of important issues with regards to organics, including:
1. The approval of an organic egg regulation that would require organic chicken farmers to provide a mere two square feet per bird of outdoor space. This is a huge favor to industrial producers allowing their factory farmed eggs to fall under the designation of “organic.” Meanwhile, it will handicap family farms that are truly letting their birds out to pasture.
2. A vote will take place to decide whether to allow a food additive produced by Martek Biosciences in organic foods. The product is an omega 3/omega-6 oil synthesized from fermented algae and soil fungus. The oil is extracted from this biomass using hexane, a neurotoxic byproduct of gasoline refinement that is specifically banned in organics.
Cornucopia investigated Martek’s patent and safety filings at the FDA, and discovered that the product also contains synthetic chemicals, stabilizers, carriers, and some of the ingredients are also genetically modified. (As it turns out, some of their products were developed by Monsanto before Martek bought the technical rights.)
“They’ve already added this to almost all infant formula in the United States,” Kastel warns. “Algae and fungus have never been a part of the human diet, let alone children’s. And now we see it in organic infant formula, and companies like Dean Foods are adding it to organic milk… it’s in every single formula available on the market… except for one organic brand [Babies Only brand, which contains DHA from eggs. All other organic brands appear to contain Martek’s omega oil].
3. The NOSB is also considering approving the addition of sulfites (artificial preservatives) to organic wine. This would be the first time artificial preservatives are allowed in organics
Organics has never been under such dire threats, so I urge you to please take a moment right now to print out, sign, and mail the proxy letter provided by Cornucopia back to them ASAP for hand delivery at the rapidly approaching NOSB meeting.
Corporate lobbyists will be present, and so will the Cornucopia Institute, to counter their claims and make sure your voice, in support of organic integrity, is heard.
So, please, print out this proxy letter right now. Sign it, and mail it, as soon as possible, to:
The Cornucopia Institute
PO Box 126
Cornucopia, Wisconsin 54827
Also consider including a donation check with your letter, to support the invaluable work the Cornucopia Institute performs to protect your and your family’s right to clean, wholesome, truly organic food.
As of right now, there does not appear to be any additional benefit to contacting your congressman, but if the need arises, Cornucopia will notify all their members and subscribers with the information.
I can’t encourage you enough to participate in this process. It’s important to recognize that you CAN make a difference! Always remember that collectively, we have the most effective power in the marketplace that can exceed the power of these multibillion dollar, multinational corporations. We can vote with our pocket books. But we also need to make our voices heard; we have to let these agencies know that we are watching, we’re paying attention, and we’re not going to allow this immoral, if not downright illegal, industrial favoritism to continue.