Appropriating “Organic”

It appears that the titans of the food industry are having their way with the USDA and the feds may soon approve a list of 38 non-organic items that may be included in foods marked “organic.” All of this interesting regulatory play is inidicative of the fact that organic foods finally hit the big time, and thus became worth of Big Food’s attention. We see a several different things happening here.

1. The public is becoming more concerned about the contents of its foodstuffs.

2. With more interest in organic food, Big Food decides to buy into to the industry.

3. Once bought in to the industry, making money off of the public’s (perhaps legitimate) fear of the current foodsupply (that Big Food created and aggressively markets), industry immediately sought to make organic foods cheaper, more attractive, or tastier (or perhaps all three) by adding non-organic ingredients.

4. With its meaning diluted (and I’m not taking a position on whether this dilution is meaningful – whether these 38 ingredients make items more or less healthy), the term organic may slowly lose its value as an indicator that a food product is distinctively more natural.

5. This will open new opportunities for creative small food marketers to create new language signifying the concept that “organic” once conveyed.

In the end, Big Food is simply doing with “organic” what it does with so many of the food products it markets: taking the underlying item (usually things like wheat, but in this case the word organic), processing it until it is a first cousin to its natural state, and serving up this not-quite-real but plenty alluring product to a waiting public.

Is this an example of markets working? Or of the vices of regulation? I’ll leave that question for people who actually spend money on this stuff. And I’ll have a Snickers and a Coke.

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2 Responses

  1. Dennis Tuchler says:

    We see a several different things happening here.

    6. Assuming there is enough money to be made in the organic food market, there will be one or more associations of organic food growers with their own approval mark to be awarded and displayed by producers that conform to the association’s standard.

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Being a vegetarian for roughly 30 years now and buying organic when practical and affordable, this is all rather disturbing stuff, although admittedly I’m not surprised (and I do not at all see this a a result of the ‘vices of regulation’ but rather a product of the lobbying power of corporate/agribusiness/Big Food interests).

    The abstract from “Animal Rights without Controversy” by Jeff Leslie and Cass Sunstein reads as follows:

    “Many consumers would be willing to pay something to reduce the suffering of animals used as food. The problem is that existing markets do not disclose the relevant treatment of animals, even though that treatment would trouble many consumers. Steps should be taken to promote disclosure, so as to fortify market processes and to promote democratic discussion of the treatment of animals. In the context of animal welfare, a serious problem is that people’s practices ensure outcomes that defy their existing moral commitments. A disclosure regime could improve animal welfare without making it necessary to resolve the most deeply contested questions in this domain.”

    These developments with regard to “organic” labeling suggests the promotion of a disclosure regime on animal treatment should be one that is not run by trade groups or the government in the first instance, but rather by animal welfare organizations, with government oversight thereof.