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Organic industry has been fibbing all along

Tomato plants
Tomato plants

A massive new Organic Marketing Report was published yesterday at the site on the marketing of organic foods. Subtitled “Why Consumers Pay more For Organic Foods? Fear Sells and Marketers Know it,” the report is written by Joanna Schroeder and reviewed by Professors Bruce Chassy and David Tribe. The 32-page article with over 100 references reviews both scientific data and organic industry marketing data, concluding that

“the potential to develop the organic market would be limited if “ consumers are satisfied with food safety and the furor over genetic modification dies down.”

This statement, by Kay Hamilton of the market analysis firm Promar International was made at the 1999 Organic Food Conference.

The report, however, says that an analysis of organic industry practices “finds direct evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities are the primary cause of false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions…”

When the USDA first adopted organic standards and the USDA Organic seal, it was clear that “organic” meant a series of agricultural techniques, but did not imply that organic foods were in any way safer or more nutritious. This is outlined in Marian Burros’ original New York Times article as well as in the WebMD article quoting Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

However, the standards were not developed to create a superior product with respect to safety, quality, or nutrition, the agency says. In fact, according to the USDA, the label was created simply to bolster both domestic and foreign confidence in the U.S. organic food industry.

"Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality," said Glickman.

So, from the outset, it was clear that “organic” labeling was a marketing tool describing particular agricultural practices rather than a statement about nutrition, flavor or safety. This has been shown in a review by Dangour

From a systematic review of the currently available published literature, evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.

And Winter and Davis concluded that

“it is premature to conclude that either food system is superior with respect to safety or nutrition.”

They also pointed out that use of fewer pesticides may stimulate the plant to produce more pesticides of their own. And Winter and Katz concluded that all of the pesticide residues found on both conventional and organic crops were orders of magnitude below the established chronic reference dose (RfD) or acceptable daily intake.

So, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence that organic foods are safer or more nutritious, this is the marketing approach that the organic food industry has been using from the outset.

In fact, the Organic Consumer Association’s literature claims in successive canards that “not only is organic safer, healthier and more nutritious,” and it will “reduce food-borne illnesses and diet-related diseases.” Recently, organic foods from spinach to peppercorns have been recalled because of bacterial contamination.

Nonetheless, most parents are motivated to buy organic foods for their offspring, not because of better soil care but because of its perceived safety. And central to this campaign is Stonyfield Organic (and their YoBaby brand) and their CEO Gary Hirschberg.

The article takes the USDA to task for implicitly supporting this nonsense, as well as for allowing consumers to believe that this is a government safety label, rather than one managed by the marketing arm of the USDA.

Hirschberg and “Just Label It”

Stonyfield’s Gary Hirshberg is also the leader of the industry-funded “Just Label It” campaign which is designed to raise questions about the safety of GMO products, even though scientific organizations world wide have concluded that GMO crops pose no harm. He claims “they might be causing acute or chronic effects” and that the “best way to protect you and your family from GMOs in your food are to purchase organic today and fight for GMO labeling in the future.”

In fact, the article quotes Colle Farmer’s Market as saying that labeling of GMO crops “will only strengthen the organic food market.” Similarly, Amy’s Kitchen, Earth’s Best, and United Natural Foods claim GMOs are dangerous and Organic Valley claims the GMOs cause “food allergens.”

Organic Valley is also the unacknowledged sponsor of a web cartoon for children called Frog TV, which spreads extensive misinformation about the health of organic brands and the dangers of GMOs.

Both Horizon and Organic Valley have hired pediatrician Dr Alan Greene to write a letter to use in their parent tool kit, urging parents to buy organic and avoid GMOs, appallingly linking them with ADHD, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression and cancer.

It is also worth noting that Organic Valley is a contribute to the Environmental Working Group, Whole Foods to Farm Aid (an anti-GMO group) and that many organic companies contribute to the Rodale Institute, which not only encourages organic farming, but takes anti-GMO positions.


The report is extensive and points out many more misleading statements than we can summarize here, but the conclusion is that even though there is no science showing that organic foods are more healthful or that GMO crops are in any way dangerous, the organic industry uses these positions mendaciously to promote their brands.

Organic farming is not “bad,” although it is indeed more profitable. It preserves the soil and allows more sustainable farming, often using biological controls to minimize pesticides. But it is not healthier for the consumer and as this report shows, it is long past time we call out the organic marketing groups for their continuing misleading health statements.

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