The move, while still
a test in a limited region, reflects a much broader trend: the growing
interest among large food companies in offering organic foods along
with their standard products.
General Mills markets
the Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen brands; Kraft owns Back to Nature
and Boca Foods, which makes soy burgers.
Within the last few years,
Dean Foods, the dairy giants, has acquired Horizon Organic and White
Wave, maker of Silk organic soymilk, Groupe Danone, the French dairy
company, owns Stonyfield Farm.
Wal-Mart wants in, too.
“We are particularly excited about organic food, the fastest-growing
category in all of food,” Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s chief
executive, said at a recent shareholder meeting.
“It’s a great
example of how Wal-Mart can appeal to a wider range of customers.”
But as organic food enters the mainstream, evolving from an idealistic
subculture rooted in images of granola and Birkenstocks, a bitter
debate has ensued over what exactly the word “organic”
should mean. And now Congress is jumping into the controversy.
With sales of roughly
US$12 billion, organic food remains a niche market within the US$500
billion food industry. But the sector’s growing appeal to
consumers has fuelled a 20 per cent annual growth rate in recent
years, making it highly attractive to food giants looking for gains
in a slow-moving business.
At General Mills, the
Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen brands increased sales by 21 percent
in the last year, according to the research firm Information Resources
Inc., while the company’s overall business was up just 1.6
Consumer groups and some
organic pioneers say they are concerned that the movement, which
was a response to the practices of corporate food production and
promotes a natural chemical-free approach to farming, will become
watered down unless firm standards are maintained.
The debate has been under
way for several years. But last week, Senate and House Republicans
on the Agriculture appropriations subcommittee inserted a last-minute
provision into the department’s fiscal 2006 budget specifying
that certain artificial ingredients could be used in organic food.
The Organic Trade Association
an industry-lobbying group that proposed the amendment and spent
several months pushing for its adoption says that the measure will
encourage the continued growth of organic food.
Some advocacy groups,
however, say the amendment will weaken federal organic food standards,
first established under a 1990 law.
Ronnie Cummins, national
director of the Organic Consumers Association, calls the initiative
a “sneak attack engineered by the likes of Kraft, Dean Foods
One of the lobbyists
for Altria, Kraft’s majority owner, Abigail Blunt –
the wife of Rep. Roy Blunt, who recently became acting House Majority
leader after Tom DeLay of Texas resigned from the post – has
been working on the issue, the company says.
Dean Foods’ subsidiary
Horizon Organic and the J.M. Smucker Co., the owner of Knudsen and
Santa Cruz Organic juices, said they supported the work by the Organic
Trade Association, which represents both large and small companies
in the business, but did no lobbying on their own.
The amendment injects
Congress directly into the debate over whether certain artificial
ingredients and industrial chemicals should be allowed in products
labeled organic. In a lawsuit ruled upon in January, Arthur
Harvey, an organic blueberry farmer, argued that no synthetics at
all should be in food bearing the “USDA Organic” seal.
A federal judge agreed,
sending shivers down the spine of many organic food manufacturers.
Katherine Dimatteo, executive
director of the Organic Trade Association, said that the amendment
was intended to protect the industry from the Harvey ruling and
will not change the status quo. If applied, the judge’s ruling
would have forced many manufacturers to stop using the USDA Organic
seal and instead relabeled products to state, for instance, “cookies
made with organic flour” or “frozen lasagna made with
Many in the organic
industry say they are willing to allow some use of synthetics in
organic food. Since 2002, the National Organic Standards
Board, a 15-member panel of advisers appointed by the Agriculture
Department, has served as the gatekeeper for such substances. In
that time, 38 have been approved, many of them relatively harmless
ingredients like baking powder, pectin, ascorbic acid and carbon
But Joseph Mendelson,
legal director at the Center for Food Safety, a liberal advocacy
group, says that the proposed legislation will open the door to
a range of other chemicals and artificial materials, including a
large category of so-called food contact substances – things
like boiler additives, disinfectants and lubricants with unpronounceable
Most of these substances
would not end up in finished products in detectable amounts. But
many in the organic community say that these tools of mainstream
food processing do not belong in organic production.
want organic food manufacturers having carte blanche use of the
same kind of synthetics that conventional food processors use, especially
when it involved things that do not appear on the ingredient panels,”
said James A. Riddle, chairman of the National Organic Standards
Board. “I think people choose to buy organic food because
they don’t use all those things.”
DiMatteo contends that
the Organic Trade Association is not trying to loosen organic standards
or take authority away from the standards board.
George Simeon, chief
executive of Organic Valley, a cooperative of mostly small organic
dairy farmers, wrestled with the high cost of organic production
a little over a year ago when Wal-Mart asked for a 20 per cent price
cut. For three years, Organic Valley had been Wal-Mart’s primary
supplier of organic milk.
you to really build market share,” Simeon said.
about our values and being able to sustain our farmers. If a customer
wants to stretch us to the point where we’re not able to deliver
our mission, then we have to find different markets.” Simeon
told Wal-Mart to get a new supplier.
Dean Foods’ Horizon
Organic was better equipped to satisfy Wal-Mart’s demands.
Horizon gets about 20 per cent of its production from a 4,000-cow
organic dairy in Paul, Idaho, which is small in comparison with
many conventional dairy farms but huge by organic standards.
Mark Kastel, senior farm
policy analyst at Cornucopia, a group representing small dairy farmers,
contends that Horizon is able to run such a large farm because it
dilutes organic principles. Earlier this year, his group filed a
petition arguing that the Idaho farm crams too many cows into a
confined area, where most of them do not graze on pasture but instead
consume a high-grain diet.
farms are trying to cut corners,” Kastel said. “When
you feed more calorie-dense grains, you get more milk.”
The National Organic
Standards Board has been trying to persuade the Agriculture Department
to clarify its vague rule that to produce organic milk, dairy cows,
besides receiving only organic feed and avoiding growth hormones
and antibiotics, must have “access to pasture.” It wants
to require that milk labeled organic come from cows that get at
least 30 per cent of their diet from pasture grass for a minimum
of 120 days a year.
Kastel of Cornucopia
estimates that roughly 30 per cent of the organic milk sold in the
US comes from cows that are not on pasture, most of them from two
large dairies run by Aurora Organic Dairy, an offshoot of what was
once the country’s largest conventional dairy company. Organic
milk is the most popular organic product and sells for up to twice
the price of regular milk.
Mark Retzloff, president
of Aurora Organic, said he did not agree with the National Organic
Standards Board’s proposed pasture rule, but added that he
was planning to add 220 hectares of grazing land to the farm. The
company is also building a new dairy in a layout that Retzloff said
would be more conducive to putting thousands of cows on pasture
and still milking them three times a day.
Such tensions are likely
to remain whatever the new legislation allows. Sheryl O’Laughlin,
chief executive of Clif Bar, which makes organic energy bars, says
that while the difficulty of operation organically and finding natural
ingredients often ends up raising production costs, it is also what
gives the category its purity and its appeal.