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— produced with no synthetic agents, no extraneous ingredients, produced as it once was, before economies of scale superseded quality of food as the chief consideration.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.

Related Stories:

Organic Doesn’t Mean Humane for Poultry

Why The Organic Label Isn’t Good Enough

Many Restaurants Fake It as Demand for Organic Food Rises

Photo Credit: Bob Doran


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Allen Harthorn
Allen Harthorn6 years ago

Knowing your farmer is good. If they take the time and $$ to get certified even better. At least they are knowledgeable about the National Organic Program rules and are regularly inspected.

Judith Howard
Judy Howard6 years ago

I buy a lot of organic and only buy when I see the "certified organic" label. Now it seems that you can't even trust that. And I'm spending more money to boot. I will definitely have to do further research on this. I'm fuming right now!!

Dale Overall

Beware when big business gets involved in anything organic, they are are here to improve food or health as the almighty dollar and profit is their bottom line.

So many things to be wary of these days, especially when it comes to Monsanto and other huge corporations. They have always shown that they can't be trusted!

Semaj N.
Semaj N.6 years ago

So what are the guidelines for a food to be considered "organically grown". I have the funniest feeling that how Corporate America defines organically grown and how I define organically gown are probably miles apart

Vicky Barman
Past Member 6 years ago

I hope cost will go down as competition increases

Kelly Rogers6 years ago


Jelesia C.
Jelesia Clyburn6 years ago

I am glad that I now know some of the labels that are labeled organic are branches of the same companies that have so poor quality in the majority of their foods, i.e. Kelloggs owns Kashi and Morningstar Farms. These companies have made it even more difficult on local farmers while still supporting bills that propel them into debt. I will continue focusing on locally grown more than organic produce from now on.

Magyar Girl
Past Member 6 years ago


Tammy Andrews
Tammy Andrews6 years ago

Do your best to buy local organic. Push for labeling of GMO foods.