If you ever doubted the prescience of George Orwell, investigate the labeling of organic food in the U.S. In his classic novel, 1984, Orwell wrote of a dark world that was manipulated by means of “doublespeak” — a system of carefully crafted lies, distortions, and misstatements that cause enough confusion to keep people in a state of apathy and confusion. That’s exactly what’s going on in the U.S. world of so-called organic food products.
First, let’s look at the image that organic products typically broadcast — that they come from small farms using sustainable agriculture methods. This turns out to be as mythical as the life depicted in Mayberry, RFD. Organic foods have become very big business. From 1997 to 2007, consumer spending on organic foods grew by more than 20 percent. The portion of spending on organic products that went for non-produce items (dairy foods, beverages, grains, prepared foods, snacks, and breads) increased by 54 percent from 1997 to 2008. Almost simultaneously, the supply of organic products moved from small local stores, coops, and a few large natural food purveyors to “conventional channels” including Costco and large supermarket chains. In fact, by 2006, nearly half of organic food was sold via these large venues. Meanwhile, mega-food-conglomerates like Heinz, PepsiCo, Kraft, and others were busily gobbling up small, dedicated, organic food producing companies. You can get a graphic depiction of who owns what at http://www.cornucopia.org/who-owns-organic/.
For example, Horizon, an organic milk producer, is owned by Dean, a huge company that has already absorbed brands such as Silk, Land-O-Lakes, Pet Evaporated Milk, MeadowGold, and Alta Dena, among others. Read the story on a carton of Horizon milk and you find yourself in the land of small farmers whose cows graze on open pasture lands maintained with sustainable practices. However, an expose by the Cornucopia Institute revealed just the opposite. Horizon uses farm-factory techniques penning up as many as 4000 cows in tight rows for milking assembly-line style. This is just one example. You can be sure that at least some, if not most, of your favorite healthy products actually originate from sources like Heinz (Breadshop, Health Valley); Pepsi (Naked Juice), Coca Cola (Odwalla), and General Mills (Cascadian Farm). You don’t have to stretch your imagination too much to envisage how the profit motive of conglomerates can and does run roughshod over the ideals and sustainable practices of the organizations they devour.
Then there is the definition of the term “organic” itself. In 1990, Congress passed a law that created a basis for organic food standards in the U.S. The law required spot testing of organic foods for traces of pesticides, but that testing simply hasn’t happened according to a report released by the Office of the Inspector General of Agriculture (Phyllis K. Fong). In fact, Fong’s report showed lots of flaws in the USDA’s National Organic Program, including failing to inspect foreign producers and failing to crack down on companies marketing non-organic products as organic. The report focused on the years 2006-2008 during the Bush administration, during which a lack of funding and staffing resulted in cumulative failures that prevented the USDA organic seal from representing adherence to a uniform standard for organic products — a problem that the USDA is currently trying to correct.
To make the term “organic” even more confusing, Congress has been meddling with what ingredients can be included in the label “organic.” In October, 2005, Congress passed an amendment to the organic program law that weakened organic labeling. A previous ruling would have required companies using the term organic in their labels to eliminate synthetic ingredients within 12 months. The October amendment allowed producers to use the organic label, even if their products contained synthetic ingredients and processing aids, and even if their young cows (who would later be converted to organic methods) were given hormone treatments and genetically modified feed. Why would Congress do such things? Because Congressmen (and women) need donations from manufacturers in their home states and gifts from Washington-based lobbyists if they want to get re-elected.
And it gets worse.
In 2007, the USDA proposed that certain non-organic products be allowed in foods using the organic label. Click here to view the list. Among the items they included were “natural sausage casings (processed intestines),” “colors from 19 extracts,” and “orange shellac.” The list also included non-organic celery powder (used in the curing of meat), and non-organic chia (which adds fiber and omega-3 to baked goods and beverages). If an organic product contains non-organic ingredients, is it still organic? Apparently, both the U.S. Congress and the USDA think the answer is yes.
There are groups fighting to keep the label “organic” pure, so that it actually represents sustainable practices, minimal processing, and non-synthetic ingredients. These groups include the Organic Consumers Association and the Cornucopia Institute. Hopefully, they won’t be subjected to torture like Orwell’s 1984 protagonist, Winston Smith, who was forced to adopt doublespeak and drop his own sense of reality. But in the meantime, if you want organic food, read labels carefully, find out who owns what, and buy locally grown or produced whenever possible. And know that if a product bearing the USDA Organic seal doesn’t say “100% organic,” then it ain’t. If the label says, “Made with Organic Ingredients,” you’re purchasing 70 percent organic ingredients, and the remaining 30 percent are from the USDA’s approved list. And if the label simply says “Organic,” only 95 percent of the ingredients must actually be organic. The remaining five percent can be synthetic or non-organic, and George Orwell can add one more quote to his three famous doublespeaks from 1984:
- WAR IS PEACE
- FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
- IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
- ORGANIC IS WHATEVER CORPORATE AMERICA WANTS IT TO BE