Organic foods have moved from the margins of the U.S. food industry to the mainstream. Nearly 90% of all retail food stores now sell organically produced items. Natural food retailers, such as Whole Foods Market, with 270 stores nationwide, have proliferated since the first Whole Foods opened in Austin, Texas, in 1980. Organic food is a big business, with sales expected to reach $27 billion this year. While still small compared to the overall $670 billion market, organic food has been the fastest-growing sector of U.S. agriculture in the past decade, with annual sales growth approaching 20%. And as it matures, the organic food industry is learning to flex its marketing, lobbying, and legal muscles.
“Organic foods and organic farming are becoming mainstream and part of Main Street,” U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Kathleen A. Merrigan, PhD, a veteran organic foods proponent who joined the Obama administration last year, recently told a congressional panel. “In 1990, organic was an exotic item in the average grocery store. Times have certainly changed.”
Indeed they have. Last year, more than half (54%) of organic food sales were through mainstream groceries, club stores, and retailers. Natural retailers accounted for 38%, and farmers markets, co-ops, and local and regional outlets made up the balance. Two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic foods at least occasionally, and nearly one-third purchase organic products weekly.
This meteoric rise is due in part to the perception that organic foods are safer, more nutritious, and tastier than those produced by agribusiness. Recent scandals involving Escherichia coli-tainted spinach and massive recalls of eggs and peanut products due to Salmonella concerns have reinforced the view among many consumers that organically grown foods are simply better than their conventional counterparts, and thus worth the extra cost.
But despite these perceptions, organic foods have traveled a rocky road over the years, and confusion abounds. While taste is a matter of, well, taste, the question of whether or not organic foods are safer and more nutritious than conventional foods is still open for debate. And with phrases such as “natural” and “no artificial ingredients” proliferating on the labels of products ranging from canned goods to processed meats and even snack foods, it is no wonder that consumers are confused about what “organic” really means.
Some conventional growers, producers, and even manufacturers who sell fertilizers to organic farmers complicate the issue by misbranding their products in an attempt to command higher prices. “Unfortunately, people after a fast buck will look under all the rocks,” said Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit research and education organization in Boulder, Colo. “But the record of the organic industry itself has been good and is getting better,” he told Food Quality magazine.
Food safety has not gotten the attention it deserves in some segments of the organic community. Food safety does not respect farm boundaries, scale, or systems. It can hit and hurt people in any type of farming situation.
—Charles Benbrook, PhD, The Organic Center
Back to the Future
Organic food production has its roots in preindustrial farming and livestock management methods. But it also applies scientific soil maintenance and replenishment techniques, field diversity, and responsible use of natural, non-synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
“Certified organic” agricultural products are grown and processed according to standards set by the USDA. Growers, producers, and processors are certified by state agencies and USDA-accredited organizations, whose inspectors may audit organic farms annually to verify record keeping and compliance with such requirements as long-term soil management, the use of approved fertilizers and pesticides, and the presence of buffers between organic and neighboring conventional fields.