Organic farming started as a small and simple movement frequently associated with 1960s hippies and back-to-the-landers, but today organic food has grown into a complicated big business, reaching a broad array of consumer plates through all types of retailers and raising questions about the accuracy of product labels.
Organic produce accounts for at least 5.5 percent of the food Americans buy from retailers, according to the Organic Trade Association. In a May 2018 survey, the Washington, D.C., trade association found organic food sales in the U.S. rose 6.4 percent from 2016 to 2017 to hit a new record of $45.2 billion.
And organic food is no longer only available in specialty health food stores. Online websites and big-box stores like Walmart and Costco have joined traditional organic food sellers including Whole Foods, which itself last year was purchased by Amazon. Each is selling billions of dollars’ worth of organic food per year through extensive distribution webs, according to The Balance Small Business website.
“Organic has arrived. And everyone is paying attention,” Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said in a prepared statement in May, when the organization released its market study.
“Our survey shows there are now Certified Organic products in the marketplace representing all stages of the life cycle of a product or a company—from industry veterans to start-ups that are pioneering leading-edge innovation and benefits and getting shelf space for the first time,” she says. “Consumers love organic, and now we’re able to choose organic in practically every aisle in the store.”
Consumers who buy organic food typically will pay more for it because of its perceived health benefits. Some will fork an extra 20 percent or more for fresh organic vegetables, according to The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., a food and beverage research company.
But the growing desire for organic food, the broad array of places to buy it, and the hundreds of organic items for sale at any given retailer are causing growing pains for the organic industry and consumers.
That includes a public debate over the accuracy and usefulness of product labels. Some experts argue that many consumers are trying to eat healthy, but are confused over exactly what it is they are buying.
There is widespread misunderstanding about all types of food among consumers, Michigan State University finds in its Food Literacy and Engagement Poll in 2017. For example, more than one-third of Americans do not know that foods without genetically modified ingredients still contain genes as part of their makeup, as do all foods.
In the first of two 2018 polls, the university found that consumers consider labels very important to what they buy. Some 61 percent of respondents say labels are influential or very influential in their food-buying decisions. And 53 percent say they avoid eating foods that contain chemicals.
When it comes to trusting scientists involved in food safety, the 2018 poll finds that 52 percent trust academic scientists, 48 percent trust government scientists, and 33 percent trust industry scientists.
“I think from polling we see that most Americans are misinformed or disengaged when it comes to food and what the information on the labels means,” says Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-author of the Michigan State University Food Literacy and Engagement polls.
“Labels are being used to market a product, but they’re also being used for information about it, so they’re making people confused,” she says. “Most people don’t know what ‘organic’ means.”
But that doesn’t stop shoppers from seeking organic products. The university’s second poll of 2018, due out to the public in the fall, finds that 53 percent of American’s polled will check a label for the word “organic.”