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Report Says Organic Label Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

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A new report concludes that organic food is neither safer nor healthier than conventional food, and accuses the organic industry of using misinformation to market the label.

Grocery shopping these days can take all day if you spend the time to read every label, consider every farm story behind the product, and balance out the perceived benefits of those claims to what your food budget allows. I believe that both the blessing and the curse of today’s American food system is that we have so much choice. When our grandparents went to market, they bought such commodity basics as eggs, flour, milk, meat and sugar. With those basics, they created homemade meals from scratch; there was little thought to the ethics of production, or the safety, nutrition and environmental impact of the staples they purchased.

However, many of today’s shoppers think about all those concepts as they put food in their grocery carts. Brands, niche markets and different production methods evolved and flourished as a way for farmers and ranchers to earn a premium for producing something different. Due to societal trends and concerns, consumers wanted to learn more about their food and the people who produced it. And the better-heeled, at least, were willing to pay more for what they thought were higher-quality foods.

Somewhere along the way in the competition for consumers, the rhetoric changed from positive to negative. Organic, natural, grass-fed -- you name it -- began to target traditionally raised, conventional foods using fear-mongering to get folks to pay more for a “safer, healthier” product. Pushed by popular media, such misinformation and misconceptions are now commonly perceived as fact.

 

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Despite the fact that USDA has repeatedly made statements that organic is not a healthier or safer food choice than conventional, consumers have been told otherwise in organic’s marketing claims.

“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 USDA Secretary Dan Glickman in December 2000.

According to Food Navigator USA, “The organic food industry has been engaged in a multi-decade public disinformation campaign, a new report claims. The report -- which has been strongly criticized by the organic food lobby -- is based on a view of 200+ published academic, industry, and government research reports into why consumers buy organic foods.”

The report concludes that, “Consumers have spent years paying over the odds for organic foods based on the erroneous belief -- promulgated by stakeholders with a vested interest -- that they are healthier and safer than their conventional counterparts.” You can read the article here, and see the full report here.

While I support any and every way we can reach consumers and meet their demands, I would have to agree that negative attacks on conventional production have been a staple of organic's marketing programs. The result is that many of today’s consumers fear the products of conventional agriculture. Many moms I've visited with have told me they feel guilty if they can’t afford organic to feed their children. Worries about hormones, chemicals, toxins, animal abuse and more seem to be ubiquitous.

What do you think the best solution is for reassuring the general public about conventionally raised food? How can we best support all types of food production without slamming one method over another? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of Beefmagazine.com or the Penton Farm Progress Group.

 

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Discuss this Blog Entry 23

Ben Campbell (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

Great article Amanda!
How long until the fruits and nuts start commenting?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

I have one problem with your statement "Organic, natural, grass-fed -- you name it -- began to target traditionally raised, conventional foods using fear-mongering to get folks to pay more for a “safer, healthier” product. Pushed by popular media, such misinformation and misconceptions are now commonly perceived as fact." Amanda, I would like for you to define 'traditional' because this will be different for each one of your readers. In my mind, consumer's looking for 'traditional' are likely thinking early 20th century, when the majority of society either lived on the farm, or were only one generation removed. If you agree with me, then your quote above is dead wrong because we don't produce food like the days of the early 20th century. When my grandparents farmed, things like pesticides and hormones didn't exist. I would consider your opinions just as biased as someone from the organic sector, just the other side of the coin. This issue is very complex, and I think deserves more thorough discussion then your equally one-sided rhetoric.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

There is some validity to your points, though I agree with Amanda. Her mistake is her choice of words. Even though she may be 100 percent correct in her assessment, "fear-mongering", and similar words and phrases, probably will only enrage those of the opposing view. The flaw is in semantics.
With that in mind, I could take your views and thoughts more seriously if you had a greater command of proper punctuation and grammar. To wit: "consumer's" is singular possessive, not plural for consumer. "Then" is not synonymous with "than". And, if hormones didn't exist when your grandparents farmed, one can only surmise that they must have farmed before organic life existed.

Ron Freeman (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

I have been a rancher most of my life, except for college. Years ago I adopted a wholistic approach to ranch management. One of my transitions was to implement a totally organic management strategy. The affects were very dramatic. My land became healthier. My cattle became healthier. I stopped all inputs on my ranch except an organic mineral program. Species of wildlife began returning as I cleaned my pasture Eco-systems up. Birds and animals that I hadn't seen in 50 years began returning to my land. For anyone to assert that the organic plan holds no water, should take off the corporate blinders off and excersise some actual fact finding intelligence. The USDA and most publications have always been held hostage by Corporate Ag. How sad it is that many in Ag can't think and problem solve for themselves. If you want to know more, write me. I would be happy to have a discussion with you.

on Apr 24, 2014

Please get in touch with me Ron - I would like to hear mroe of your experiences.
Farmers of all kinds are becoming increasingly interested in soil quality as they realise bugs and worms can do almost as much as chemicals that are subject to constant price increases. I meet farmers who are happy to spray and spread but say they take their hats off to organic producers, who have a far greater understanding of the interaction of bugs, bacteria, plants and the way soil chemistry works. Their soils are a source of food for plants and not simply a carrier of chemical nutrition. The organic movement is hampered by being hijacked by people who have a fascination with regulation and inspection. My neighbours excellent farm business was ruined by their going organic, on land which was never going to support the stock they were carrying and which was going to take ten years to go from a diet of chemicals to one supported by biology.

Dennis Hoyle (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

I started my operation in 1971. I am not a radical anything and I am not organic. I started raisning grassfed beef to put one in my freezer and I liked it very much. Over the years I have invested in grass fed type genetics. I have shared some of my grass fed meat with a few people including pheasant hunters that hunt here. That has turned into requests for grassfed beef. I would be happy to produce corn fed beef if someone asked me too, but nobody has. I am not attacking anything. I feel like conventional ag is attacking me. I am just supplying a product that people are asking for. I don't advertise, and I get a very healthy premium. Because it is a slow process to produce, I am having trouble keeping up with demand. I will tell you that I am no longer producing GMO products, and to best of my ability I will try not to eat GMO foods any more.

Mary Ann Murray (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

I think it was a great article. As to the previous comments, I believe we have more to fear in the preservatives and processing than the other areas mentioned. I had a trucker haul some wheat for me one time that then had to haul some organic. He had to wash his trailer and everything out to haul the organic after he had hauled our wheat. Upon his return to hauling our wheat, he told us we should make him wash his trailer before he hauled ours as the wheat was so full of dead rodents, a raccoon, etc. and our wheat was much cleaner. I don't like all the in fighting between "organic" and "traditional" , but seems the organic side is always needing to throw daggers at the conventional side to promote their own.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

But, Mary Ann, it seems on this forum the "conventional" style of agriculture is the thrower of daggers....

I believe the responses of the previous gentlemen support rationality and health, don't you??

on Apr 24, 2014

Luckily not all organic wheat is like that, and the mill or customer will soon be in touch with the farmer! But I agree that the controversy is often misplaced, as farmers are all trying to do the same thing. But Mary will have to agree that big-ag does sometimes want to over-sell it products, be they for growing crops or livestock. MSD Animal Health sent me a press release "Protect lambs from killer disease threat" for their Heptavc sheep vaccine. So is there a major new threat? No. What are the circumstances where the drug might be most valuable? They don't spell it out. Farm media that depend on advertising support has difficulty in pointing out the other side... which is why my publication continues to be independent of advertisers. But it does mean I buy my food from the budget shelves of the supermarket!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

The problem with how we define organic or traditional is that too many people want to deny results. Results which either side wants to dismiss if they are not in their favor. This dismissal and misunderstanding goes to the lack of science education in our schools.The hype is what consumers are responding to, as has been demonstrated many times. Examples, don't eat eggs, avoid dairy with each new finding the USDA changed recommendations and our society followed.
The issue that I have with organic is that many of the advocates have no background or education in agriculture. I am proud to be a career ag-professional. If you attend any conference on organic and/or pasture raised livestock look at the qualifications of the people teaching. Most of them are small farmers who love the idea and romanticism of working the soil but lack any formal education. I have attended many meetings and heard misinformation given out, from one farmer to the other.
If you go to a commodity meeting or cattleman's association meeting who presents. Almost always it is a specialist or industry professional. I know the rhetoric that they are all controlled by Monsanto, I don't think that is true and even if it is the industry needs those partners as well. I think lobbying to prevent private funding would be great, but lobby for money to fund university research and the extension service to get the information out.
Since the early 1900's the land grant schools have been advancing agriculture. The 100 year birthday of the Extension Service is next month, this is the one government program that has had the longest and most effective results. This is the charge given them, to make the above mentioned 1920's agriculture to the modern world. I think agriculture has far exceeded expectations.
I am an extension agent and work with many different farmers big and small, some stuck in the 20's and the most progressive adopters of technology. I do not hear the conventional farmers bashing local and/or organic producers. However, I hear that all the time from organic producers, who have to charge unreasonable prices to etch out a small income, stating un-proven statements about conventional ag. Most small organic producers leave out economics and enterprise budgets when talking about their farm. This avoidance is on purpose, because most are unable to even breakeven. Is this a tragedy? I am not sure. If you think about today's communications with smart phones and the interweb, would we want to go back to the original phone? The advancement in technology has made our world better but not without consequence, the same holds true for agriculture.
I am proud of my farm heritage, my dad was farming beginning in 1928 and was quick to adopt fertility, pesticides, and modern varieties as soon as they were available. That was the way to be sustainable then and now.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

speaking of Monsanto (and glyphosates), Canada just made it illegal to sell Roundup-Ready alfalfa....

maybe you ought to not drink the kool-aid and check out research being done by Seneff, Huber, Harris on the antibiotic glyphosate...yes antibiotic

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

says a writer at BEEF?? lol are you kidding?? How is a cow that is pumped with antibiotics and hormone injections safer than a cow that isn't , raised outside of a factory farm, naturally grass feeding off of non pesticide saturated feed? what is "conventional production" as far as I know back in the early days of human existence before animals were raised as COMMODITY...they were free grazing on non poisoned lands. I don't eat animals, but when I shop for animal meat for my fiancé, I make sure its locally raised, organic, grass fed ,non factory farmed .

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

Yes, says a writer at BEEF. This writer is providing a synopsis of a report that utilized peer-reviewed science to reach their conclusions. The production of this report has nothing to do with BEEF Magazine, it was done by a completely different organization. So the fact that this article is written by someone at BEEF magazine is irrelevant.

Furthermore, just by using the phrase 'pumped with antibiotics and hormone injections' shows that you are lacking a true understanding of livestock production. If animals are sick, yes we use antibiotics because that is what is best for the animal. If you get sick, do you not go to the doctor and get antibiotics? If a cow is sick, what would you want us to do? Let her suffer? We use antibiotics judiciously and safely. All antibiotics given to cattle have a meat and milk withdrawal time to ensure that no antibiotic residue enters the food supply.

Also, you eluded to the notion that grass-fed is better than other forms of livestock management. Do you know how many people live in the United States? A lot. If we solely relied on grass-fed operations for our meat/dairy, there would be people starving. The fact is, we do not have enough land to support the kind of production needed to be able to feed the country.

Before you form such a strong opinion, you should do your research. In fact, this is something that everyone should do before they hop on the bandwagon and start to criticize non-organic operations. Educate yourself. Find quality, unbiased, peer-reviewed scientific literature. Talk to farmers in your area or people in the industry. Actually spend some time on a farm. Don't just go out and start attacking something you really have no idea about.

on Apr 25, 2014

Please define "factory farm"

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

and I hope you post my previous comment to be FAIR and post opinions from both sides of the topic, thank you!

Mary Lynn (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

Our cattle ranch is very diversified. We sell Registered Bulls, Registered Replacement Cattle, Commercial Replacements, Show Heifers, and also have a niche market for All Natural Beef packaged with our own label. When people ask if it is grass fed or organic, I have to say not entirely. We finish our steers out for 90 days on a grain based feed but up until then, they are grass fed. We use no hormones, and no antibiotics, and no animal byproducts are ever fed on our farm. We will use antibiotics if an animal is sick and requires intervention with antibiotics but that animal would not be sold as "All Natural." We use herbicies to control weeds in our pastures and hay meadows so we cannot claim organic but we use best management practices and are BQA Certified. We have a wide customer base at the Farmer's Market and sell from our home also. Most people are very satisified when I explain how we raise our cattle and when they buy the tasty, tender beef, they come back for more. There are many definitions of "organic" and not all producers are totally organic from seeding to harvesting of vegetables, but they can still sell under the label of "organic." For our farm to be able to sell and advertise truthfully as being "Organic" our toal operation would have to come under the strict guidelines and be inspected for 3 years before becoming certified. I am very sceptical of local producers who claim the organic status because of the strict regulations that are required to be followed. It is not financially feasible for us to even think of producing organic beef. We have been very successful with the Alll Natural Label. Our beef is safe, it tastes wonderful, and we don't misrepresent our product.

Mischa Popoff (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

The best way to assuage people's unfounded fears about conventional foods is by pointing out the complete lack of field testing in the organic industry, to expose the franchise-fee structure used by organic oversight bodies, and to explain the fact that GMOs pose no threat whatsoever to organic crops according to the rules written BY anti-GMO organic activists.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

Take a look at Twitter feeds, and tell me which farmer is creating more fear? Every day I see conventional farmers making fun of or attacking consumers who purchase organic. Calling organic farmers and consumers anti-science, cultish, Luddites, and the newest one is the organic mommy mafia. Maybe the problem isn't in the marketing. Maybe it's in the inability to accept the different practices that are out there. The divide is widening, and farmers/ranchers are carrying the biggest shovels. If we cannot get along with our neighbors, how can we expect the consumers to trust what we say?

The organic label has never stood for anything that would qualify as a marketing tool. The label stands for a set of criteria that a producer must meet in order to label their product organic. The USDA is not in the marketing business. It is in the regulating business. To insinuate otherwise is only adding to the fear and mistrust of ALL farmers/ranchers.

Personally, I'm getting tired of articles like this that point the finger at one group, while participating in the same type of activity. If we want to stand strong as an industry we have got to stop attacking ourselves!

Jeanette (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

I don't buy organic because I think it is healthier. I buy organic and non-gmo whenever possible because of what conventional agricultural does to the environment. And I want my beef grass fed, start to finish, because I like the taste. And I agree, I am sick of conventional farmers treating me like I am some sort of uneducated freak. I went to an ag college. I know your deal and I don't support it. Moreover, this is America last time I checked and I am so sick of the fight being put up by big ag against simple things such as labeling. Yes...as a consumer I have zero confidence in our ag system just from that alone. What is it that you have to hide that you can't handle a label? Oh yeah...chemicals and pesticides.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 23, 2014

There is too much sniping against one another by producers of ag products using different methods of production.

Yet, am I, a so called traditional rancher, supposed to just accept the lies about my product?

While my family uses few chemicals, relying on our native grass pastures for most of the feed for our cattle, we don't hesitate to properly use accepted chemicals when necessary to keep our cattle healthy and as comfortable as possible when flies and other pests are a problem. We work with veterinarians to determine what pharmaceutical products are needed, use them properly, and at recommended doses only. All those products are expensive and no one with any common sense would use them excessively or improperly. Further, no residues are allowed in beef. For the record, there were chemicals being used as early as, or even earlier than, 1908, as I recall hearing of what my grandparents used on their gardens and to treat their cattle. I do believe some of them were very dangerous, too. That serves to remind me that farming was not the pristine occupation back then that some people like to romanticize about! And, isn't is just ridiculous to believe that huge corporations like Monsanto would poison the very people, consumers, they depend upon to buy the food their products help to produce? It shouldn't take a genius to realize that makes no sense, and is, in fact, counterproductive!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 24, 2014

then, what is your take on the above links to glyphosate use? I would be interested in a rational discussion of this.

on May 15, 2014

The term organic is well known to all and we know the need and importance of organic fertilizer in farm industry. Farming industries try to cultivate more food to fulfill the demand of organic food. Plant foods are essential for the growth of plant and increase the production.
http://www.gsplantfoods.com/

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A fifth-generation rancher from Mitchell, SD, Amanda grew up on a purebred Limousin cattle operation in which she and husband Tyler are active. She graduated with a degree in agriculture journalism...

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