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.”
Some 56 percent say they buy organic food. The most popular reason is that they think it is healthier. They also say it is more natural, avoids pesticides, avoids GMOs, is safer, is better for them, and is better for animal welfare. Others cite family and friends or doctors as steering them toward organic foods.
The forthcoming poll found people who don’t buy organic think it is too expensive or isn’t any healthier or safer than conventional food.
Millennials turn out to value organics the most, buying more organic food and willingly paying higher prices for it.
Labeling: What’s in a Word?
With so many choices of organic foods—more than 400 alone to buy at Walmart, for example—and so much money at stake, some experts question whether marketers are taking advantage of overwhelmed consumers with ingredients included on their labels.
The controversy over labels has been brewing for several years, but it came to a head in August with an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal by Henry Miller, MS, MD, a former FDA official who, among other things, founded that organization’s Office of Biotechnology. Dr. Miller is now the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
In the Journal’s opinion piece entitled “The Organic Industry is Lying to You,” Dr. Miller asserts that FDA is uneven in its policing of organic labels. As an example, he wrote that FDA warned a Massachusetts bakery about including the word “love” in its ingredient’s list. And the Whole Foods website, he said, claims organic foods are grown “without toxic or persistent pesticides.” Dr. Miller wrote that organic farmers do sometimes rely on synthetic and natural pesticides to grow their crops. Some of the pesticides are produced by the plants to defend themselves.
One of Dr. Millet’s biggest complaints was the so-called “absence claims”—for instance, labeling a food like orange juice that has no fat to begin with as “fat free.” Dr. Miller wrote that FDA usually comes down hard on such claims because to claim something is absent it must be present in the first place.
He said the non-GMO label is a particular offender in labeling, for example, there is a non-GMO label on Hunt’s canned crushed tomatoes even though there are no genetically modified organism tomatoes on the market.
“Consumers need aggressive FDA action to curb these abuses and level the playing field,” Dr. Miller wrote.
“The FDA isn’t enforcing its labeling mandate,” he tells Food Quality & Safety.
Dr. Miller says the term organic does not imply the health of a food, and he sees it being used as a marketing tool to the detriment of some consumers who can barely afford to buy food products.
“Studies show people in poor neighborhoods may be avoiding fresh food because they can’t afford organic, which they think is healthier,” he says.
Dr. Miller’s op-ed drew strong letter responses in The Wall Street Journal from both the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit environmental advocacy program, and the Organic Trade Association.
“The organic industry isn’t hiding anything,” wrote Cameron Harsh, organic and animal programs director at the Center for Food Safety, in a response to Dr. Miller’s commentary. “The truth is organic farming has a baseline prohibition of harmful chemicals. Transparent processes are required by law allowing certain synthetic products to be used only when all other measures have failed.
“They must go through rigorous, public review to prove their use ‘would not be harmful to human health or the environment’ and must be re-reviewed every five years,” he added. “We aren’t being duped; choosing organic is the best way to reduce dietary exposure to pesticides.”
Batcha of the Organic Trade Association wrote that food with the USDA organic label is rigorously monitored. “No other agricultural system operates under the comprehensive and rigorous set of federal regulations and standards by which organic farmers choose willingly to abide,” she said in her response.
Dr. Miller responded to their letters a couple of weeks later in The Wall Street Journal, quoting Dan Glickman, who was agriculture secretary in 2000 when the federal organic standards were approved.
“I am proud to say these are the strictest, most comprehensive organic standards in the world,” Glickman said in 2000.
Although Glickman embraced organic food, saying he sometimes buys organic frozen foods, The Washington Post said he made clear that the new organic seal does not imply the organic foods are either safer or more nutritious.
“The organic label is a marketing tool,” he said at the time. “USDA is not in the business of choosing sides, of stating preferences for one kind of food, one set of ingredients or one means of production over any other.”
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, also weighed in on Dr. Miller’s comments via Twitter, saying he soon would release more detailed information on what different terms mean on food packaging to help consumers best use claims like organic and antibiotic free.
In other tweets, Dr. Gottlieb said the FDA and USDA have different roles in the oversight of organic foods. USDA regulates use of the term “organic” on food labels, while FDA oversees general food labeling compliance and food safety issues.
USDA became responsible for regulatory oversight of organic standards and accreditation of organic certifying agents under the National Organic Program (NOP), which was signed into law in 2000. The USDA Organic seal was subsequently introduced. Today, there are more than 24,000 certified organic operations throughout the U.S., according to the Organic Trade Association.
It is unclear to what extent the booming market for organic foods may be overloading certification operations.
The Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), the largest of 15 certifiers in that state, had to stop accepting new certifications in August 2017 because of the large volume of applications. It certifies 260 operations as organic. In August 2017, the number of certified organic food operations ISDA was handling was up 40 percent from four years before. It hired more inspectors in 2016, 2017, and this year.
“There was so much growth and we wanted to make sure certification was done correctly for our current clients, so we placed a temporary cap on new applications,” says ISDA organic program manager Gwen Ayres. She says it is unclear when ISDA will be able to lift the cap.
Organic growers can still try to get certified by other organizations, she says.
Is the USDA Organic Label Enough?
While the USDA Organic label intends to define in detail what is or isn’t organic food, advances in agriculture, food preparation, and internationalization all have conspired to challenge traditional definitions. A number of organic farmers also want to consider environmental impacts of organic practices in labeling.
Some organic food contains trace amounts of non-organic food parts, like spices, which are allowable up to a certain percentage. Also in question are growing techniques such as hydroponics, a process used to grow vegetables in water with nutrients.
The Real Organic Project, based in East Thetford, Vt., wants an add-on label to the USDA Organic label. The group of organic farmers says there are a lot of good things about the USDA NOP rules. But it objects to rules that allow hydroponics and concentrated animal feeding operations to be certified as organic. It announced a pilot farm inspection program in July.
“But the farm products from a tiny minority of factory farms now being certified are at odds with the original intent of organic farming,” the project’s website says. “Unfortunately, these few factories produce a large and growing proportion of the food labeled organic on the market today.”
The alliance launched its Regenerative Organic Certification program in March. It, too, looks for an organic standard focused on soil health and ecological land management, pasture-based animal welfare, and fairness to farmers and workers.
And some farmers and food producers are using new technology to improve yields. For example, USDA is in the process of reviewing comments on labeling for foods that may be bioengineered.
Gwendolyn Wyard, the OTA’s vice president of technical and regulatory affairs, stands by the USDA as the standards-keeper for organic products.
“Unlike other eco-labels and add-on claims, the USDA Organic label is the only one that is backed by a federal standard, third-party certification and federal oversight,” she writes in an email response to questions from Food Quality & Safety. She says the standards provide full traceability from farm to table.
She adds that the OTA does welcome efforts to improve agricultural practices through standards development. OTA, she says, supports Rodale, for example, for recognizing USDA Organic as the foundation and baseline requirement for its regenerative organic agriculture standard.
“It is critical that add-on labels serve as a mechanism to support the organic standards rather than compete with organic,” she says. “The use of add-on labels should not devalue the organic existing standards and all the hard work that goes into the rigorous practices and certification requirements.”
One challenge for the organic industry under the current administration is a scale-back on the USDA’s efforts to engage in organic standards development, Wyard says.
“This is a challenge for the organic sector, and is also at the root cause for the add-on label schemes we see emerging,” she says. “Although the intent is valuable, multiple certifications, audits, and inspections are a perennial challenge, particularly for farmers.”
She says shoppers can get label fatigue with all the standards and become even more confused.
“The OTA stresses the importance of ensuring that additive certification schemes and label statements will not inadvertently confuse consumers and lead to a misconception that the organic standards do not cover fundamental requirements such as soil health and animal welfare,” she says.