I’ve used this space over time to rail against the organic industry for two things. First, I have a serious beef with the lack of full marketing disclosure when it comes to the assumed or alleged health and safety benefits or organic foods. Second, I’ve got a problem with any product or service which touts itself only by trashing its competition.
Now my crustiness is confirmed by a third-party academic group in the form of a review/study entitled the “Organic Marketing Report,” released in late April by Academics Review, a non-profit for scientists, educators and researchers dedicated to the value of peer review in science. The Review was founded by Dr. David Tribe, a University of Melbourne (Australia) senior lecturer, and Dr. Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois professor emeritus of food microbiology and nutritional sciences.
Bottom line: The organic food industry built its U.S. market — $290 billion last year, for a 3,400% increase in 24 years – on “fear-based marketing.” The $35-billion organic marketing industry uses surveys showing 65% of consumers see organic as healthier, 70% as safer, and 46% as more nutritious. Consumers also assume the “USDA Organic” seal on the package means all of those things. The review found consumers routinely deceived – the review’s word, not mine – about organic “benefits,” the organic folks know it and do precious little to correct the record, and the misperception is perpetuated by advocacy groups – the Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, the Environmental Working Group, among others.
USDA comes in for a drubbing as well if only because it doesn’t remind the public what the federal certified organic program is really all about. When launched in 2000, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said about the USDA organic seal the following: “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.” The script is written; USDA need only repeat it or put it at the top of its organics webpage.
The organic marketing review was exhaustive, studying over 200 academic, industry and government reports on consumer purchasing, plus 1,000 news reports, 500 website/social media evaluations, marketing materials/ads, analyst presentations, speeches and advocacy reports released during 1988-2014. The report was reviewed by an independent committee of food scientists, as well as economics and legal experts.
“Consumers have spent hundreds of billions of dollars purchasing…organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health…the research found extensive evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing (is) a primary cause of these misperceptions. This suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of…intentionally deceptive marketing and paid advocacy,” the review states.
I will cut the organic producers some slack. Organic is a legitimate niche market segment in the food industry. I fully understand organic production is more labor intensive, ergo more expensive to produce than conventional crops and animals. I also understand there is that segment of the population who, no matter the hard evidence, will buy organic because it assuages guilt or just makes them feel better. This is all fine and good. There’s no such thing as good or bad foods.
However, just as I can’t raise an animal in the conventional way and claim it’s healthier, happier, Mother Nature-preferred and safer than organic, neither should the organic industry allow the public to wander the wasteland of misinformation/misperception relative to food safety, health and environmental benefit.
Said the reviewers: “It’s our hope responsible members of the organic food industry and government…will use these findings to address consumer misperceptions about…food safety and nutrition. Accurate food safety, nutrition and health information combined with consumer pocketbook protections should be a threshold standard for any government program that cannot be co-opted by special interest marketing groups.”