Big Food Turns Organics Into Big Business

Jul 26, 2012
Bernice Hurst

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has increased the number of materials approved for organic foods from 77 to 250 since 2002. A two-thirds majority of its fifteen members is required to add items to the list. "Big Food" is said to play a powerful role in setting standards, with major corporations dominating to the board.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan apparently credits "expanding variety" for increasing numbers on the (NOSB) list. Skeptics suggest it could be due to lenient standards and/or excellent marketing to oblivious/uninterested/ignorant consumers.

Demand, say some, can only be satisfied by companies big enough to scale up production and add value to basic ingredients. Advocacy group, Cornucopia Institute, and non-profit advisory organization, Holistic Management International, represent opposing views over size and what should be included on the list as well as composition of the decision-making board, according to The New York Times.

The board’s goal, as explained by Miles McEvoy of the National Organic Program, is to "represent the diversity of the American public and of organic agriculture." In principle, there seems little argument over this; in practice, there is argument over the extent to which it is achieved.

John Grurich in The Motley Fool says, "a surprisingly strong and ever-increasing selection of organic foods" in supermarkets is not necessarily a dream come true because "organic food simply isn’t as organic as it used to be." Mr. Grurich cites high prices as one likely reason for big corporations buying smaller producers, ensuring their share of market and profit. "For health-conscious consumers who go out of their way to buy organic, and who pay the extra money for the privilege, it’s worth re-evaluating the meaning of ‘organic’ and whether or not the extra effort — or the extra money — is still worth it."

Paul Tick of calls it "the fastest growing segment of the food industry," acknowledging that corporate participation ensures organics reach more people but also means small farmers and distributors "lose their share of the marketplace."

Discussion Question: In what ways has the increasing involvement of big food companies been positive as well as negative for the organic movement? To what degree are organic fans’ fears justified?

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4 Comments on "Big Food Turns Organics Into Big Business"

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Zel Bianco
8 years 2 months ago

The big food companies see the obvious business opportunities for the organic category and are stepping in. Big food companies have the capability to make organic foods more readily available to consumers as well as moving organic food into the mainstream thinking of consumers. As long as the term organic certified does not get muddled in the process, this has the potential of being a good thing for consumers.

Mark Heckman
8 years 2 months ago

For the health-conscious devotee, the expansion of organic to the mainstream of the retailer’s product offerings could have a negative connotation, given organic buyers are less likely to believe the product is pure organic if procured and sold in mass quantities.

From professional experience, organic products are not the preference of a large number of consumers, who are put off either by the extra price, taste, size, or aesthetics of the product. Keeping organics as an elite, locally sourced (if possible), offering is likely the optimal merchandising posture.

Ken Lonyai
8 years 2 months ago

It’s a negative for the “organic movement.”

There’s no big “Big Food” company interested in organics: organic ingredients are more demanding on the supply chain, costlier, and in comparatively short supply. They use “organic” as a marketing term to hopefully reach a wider audience of what I (and they?) would classify as interested but not committed consumers. Not many people that truly eat/live an organic lifestyle will ever trust a big corporation to fill their organic food basket. So for smaller producers and specialty retailers the more large corporate involvement from otherwise non-organic brands, the more their message will get muddled and drowned out.

Given that the NOSB is part of the USDA, an agency endlessly accused of having a revolving door for Monsanto execs, can there be any question that this is financially motivated move designed to support the interests of big business?

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
8 years 2 months ago
What’s the big deal about organic? Has the term, when applied properly or even improperly, proven to be beneficial in any way whatsoever? Or, is it just a kumbaya, feel-good term that some automatically and emotionally buy into? From the article by Bern Hurst, the jury is still waaaay out. And the advocacy groups involved, with names like “Cornucopia” and “Holistic,” gives one pause. The appellation, “organic,” should be as closely guarded and protected as wine appellations such as “Champagne.” And it should be guarded and protected for a reason. Here are the questions to consider: First, what constitutes “organic?” Does it have to do with growing, preparation for selling, or other? Does it have similar requirements as “kosher?” Does a government Rabbi have to bless it? Second, what are the proven health benefits of “organic” products? There are none. Third and last, what are the proven farming benefits of “organic” guidance in raising crops or husbanding livestock? There is no such verification extant. “Organic” is simply a label, bought and paid for, for as… Read more »

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