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Waiter, There's a Big Corporation in My Organic Milk & Granola

  • The Organic Sham
    The organic food market is bigger than ever, and that's not necessarily a good thing.
    By Jamaine Batson
    Salt Lake City Weekly - Utah, Dec 7, 2006
    Straight to the Source

WILD OATS, Good Earth, Smith's Food & Drug and now Wal-Mart: These and other food purveyors carry natural and organic goods. Some started out with a focus on organics. Some have joined the club more recently in hopes that they, too, might sail this river of profitability. And they are, on gilded yachts, straight to the bank.

For those who lament the loss of the small organic grocer, it must be realized that this slide into the corporate mainstream was inevitable for the organic and natural-foods market. There is, after all, money to be made. The prize to date: 2.5 percent of the nation's food market. Before you scoff, know that this seemingly trivial portion is worth around $15 billion dollars. Given that the organic and natural-foods industry now receives more attention by corporate marketers than ever before, this figure is certain to increase.

Where there was once a tightly controlled, well-run 10-acre organic farm, there is now a 1,000-acre piece of the mainstream agri-business puzzle. What was once a well-defined organic movement headed by responsible farmers working their land in harmony with nature is now a muddled, politically dubious cash cow awaiting slaughter.

Consumers of organic and natural products have two choices when it comes to making responsible purchases. Trust the company you patronize to be honest about the products it carries or jump into the mire head-first, get dirty and research it yourself. More often than not, consumers trust their food purveyors' research. Perhaps they should think twice.

MILKING IT

Both Horizon Organic Dairy and Aurora Organic Dairy - the latter of which produces a private-label milk line for Costco, Safeway and Wild Oats - are major players in the organic dairy business. They are, in fact, two of the largest producers in the country. And both are currently embroiled in scandal.

Both dairies are accused by myriad policy groups of running industrial-style feed lots that fall short of current federal organic standards, hazy as those are. Most recently, official complaints to the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been filed by the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm-policy group, alleging that Horizon does not allow cattle sufficient grazing time on pastures at two of its large dairy farms. This follows a separate complaint to the USDA by Cornucopia Institute against Aurora Organic, alleging it does not give its cattle enough grazing time or space and uses questionable feed, to boot. In addition, Aurora has been accused of buying replacement cattle from a farm unaligned with organic farming standards. Potentially this means young cows they buy to replace older, nonproductive cows have been subjected to antibiotics, growth hormones like rBGH and likely may have been raised on a diet of pesticide-treated grains, based on a survey of several organic dairies conducted by the Cornucopia Institute. With so many complaints and allegations, the Organic Consumers Association - a respected Minnesota-based advocacy group - has called for a consumer boycott of the two organic milk producers.

The fact is, ever-increasing sales linked to growing consumer demand for organic products - especially milk - may force dairies to keep their cows confined to small pens, gorged on high-production grain diets to allow for a constant cycle through the milking line. Otherwise, these dairies could fall well short of supply to support an impossible demand.

Perhaps the blame does not fully lie within the lap of the organic factory dairy, then, but is shared by mainstream corporations touting new organic product lines and the growing number of consumers who buy them. Would we not complain if there were no organic milk to be had at all?

WAITER, THERE'S A CORPORATION IN MY GRANOLA

The organics movement flew under the radar of mega-food producers for years. As far as big business was concerned, this faction was no more than a few hippies raising limp, bug-ridden vegetables on the tiniest parcels of land. These scrappy idealists were hardly competition.

Over time, however, and as the popularity and purported benefits of organic foods crested to new sales figure heights, big business woke up. Today, the organics movement has become a victim of its own success, with corporate dogs tearing at each other for profits.

Cascadian Farms is a popular natural and organic foods brand, one that has been around for a long time fighting the good fight. It says so, right there on the box. The cereal is healthful and tasty. The copy and graphics on the box are warm and comforting. Together, they assure you of your wise investment in the product. Chewing your breakfast, you're satisfied that you've spent twice what you could have on another brand because the story on the back of the box reads like a hearty pat on the back.

Since 1972, the story goes, Cascadian Farms has been producing small batches of all-natural goodness you can be proud of. It goes on to pledge that, even today, its goal is to provide you with natural foodstuffs you can believe in because, well, these guys are a small, grass-roots sort of people. And you know whatever they do with the money you spent their way, it'll be a good thing.

What you might not know is that this company no longer exists in its original form - it was bought out by Small Planet Foods, whose principal stockholder is General Mills, which in turn is owned primarily by such companies as Chevron, Disney, DuPont, ExxonMobile, General Electric, McDonald's, Monsanto, Nike, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Phillip Morris, Starbucks, Target and Texas Instruments.

Why didn't Cascadian Farms mention that on the back of its cereal box? And are these companies‹some of which manufacture pesticides, cigarettes and weapons‹ones you would trust to help propagate quality standards within the organic and natural foods industry?

Take a look at a few more products that a shopper of organic and natural foods might recognize: Garden of Eatin', Health Valley, Terra Chips, Westbrae, Celestial Seasonings and more are all owned by Hain Food Group, whose principal stockholders include Bank of America, Entergy Nuclear, ExxonMobile, H.J. Heinz, Lockheed Martin, Merck, Monsanto, Pfizer, Phillip Morris, Citigroup and Wal-Mart. Balance Bar and Boca Burger are both owned by Kraft Foods, whose principal stockholder is Phillip Morris, home of the Marlboro Man.

Horizon Dairy and Silk Soy Milk are owned by Dean Foods, whose stockholders include Home Depot, Exxon Mobile, General Electric, Microsoft, Phillip Morris and Wal-Mart.

Kashi is owned by Kellogg's. Knudsen is owned by Smucker's. Odwalla is owned by Coca-Cola. Seeds of Change is owned by M&M Mars. Ben & Jerry's is owned by Unilever. The "small is beautiful" ethos behind the organic movement is almost a relic of its past.

The list goes on and, though the small company names change from box to box as you peruse the aisles, one thing remains constant: incestuous corporate parenthood.

Some would argue that the interest of large corporations in the organics industry is a move in the right direction, that more money and power available is a means to not only sustain, but expand the market. Yet there's evidence of political maneuvering perpetrated by lobbyists and other interest groups who either work for or are affiliated with many of these corporations.

DAMAGE REPORT

In response to pressure from large-scale food manufacturers, Republican leaders in Congress - including our own Sen. Bob Bennett - attached a controversial rider to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations Bill intended to weaken national organic-food standards.

"Congress voted to weaken the national organic standards that consumers count on to preserve the integrity of the organic label," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "The process was profoundly undemocratic and the end result is a serious setback for the multibillion dollar alternative food and farming system that the organic community has so painstakingly built up over the past 35 years."

The rider, sponsored by the Organic Trade Association, whose member list includes the likes of Aurora Organic Dairy, Bob's Red Mill and Kraft Foods, among dozens of others, allows for numerous synthetic food additives and processing aides‹including at least 517 food-contact substances like boiler additives and disinfectants‹to be used in the production of organic foods without public review. It also allows for dairy cows to be treated with antibiotics and to be fed genetically engineered feed prior to being converted to organic production.

The OCA promises to work towards reversing this harmful decree by proposing an Organic Restoration Act to Congress. But as mainstream, big-food corporations continue to absorb what remains of the independent organic-food market, this rider is certain to be one of many "official" attempts to reduce organic farming and food production standards which subsequently tend to increase profits by reducing costs. Sen. Bennett's rider will be very hard, if not impossible, to overturn.

Despite the fact that the organic foods market has retained its spot as the fastest-growing segment of the food industry for the past 13 years, a paltry $5 million of the available five-year, $220 billion U.S. Farm Bill was allocated annually for organic research and promotion. Clearly, Congress is more interested in rewarding chemical-intensive, factory-farm-style operations than in helping those same farmers move beyond their current destructive patterns by subsidizing conversion programs that would allow for more local and regional organic production.

Aside from our own health and the maintenance of a viable planet for future generations, consumer faith is a probable fatality in this silent battle.

WHERE IT COUNTS

Molly Lewis, a 42-year-old science teacher in Salt Lake City, frequents Wild Oats and makes every effort to buy organic when she can afford it. "I think that it's more nutritious," she said, "I don't like pesticides, steroids or growth hormones in my food."

Her idea of "organic" is food free of additives and chemicals and sourced locally when available. Not a bad notion. She frequents Wild Oats because the Boulder, Colo.-based chain is the leading purveyor of organic and natural foods locally and because she trusts them to be honest with their customers about the foods that they carry.

"I definitely trust their private label to be forthcoming, and I trust the labels that they carry to be forthcoming," she says. "So if they contain GMOs [genetically modified organisms], for instance, I think that they're going to say it."

To a certain degree, good, honest foodstuffs compensate for the higher prices associated with buying organic foods for her family, but when told about the web of corporate ownership behind many organic brands, she hedges.

"It depresses me. It doesn't surprise me. I'm cynical enough, jaded enough to not be surprised," she says. "I'm disappointed, especially in Wild Oats, because they're talking the talk but they aren't walking the walk. You know, it makes me think that they're just in it for the profit. I think that they can make plenty of profit while still being true to the cause."

Lewis feels that failure to disclose the true ownership behind many organic products is an intentional effort to deceive driven by the fear that conscious consumers would shop elsewhere if they were fully informed. She feels that, in some way, Wild Oats and other natural-food stores are complicit in this practice. "They aren't part of the solution, and they know what's going on," she says.

Lewis trusts Wild Oats to research its products, then inform customers. She'd do that herself, if she had the time. She's not altogether certain Wild Oats has a responsibility to make customers aware of where their food comes from but feels some effort ought to be made all the same.

"'Responsibility' is a stronger word than I'd use. I think that it would be ethical for them to do that," she says. For Wild Oats, it's a matter of logistics as to whether or not the customer knows who owns what, said company spokesperson Sonja Tuitele. "If the customer is interested, they can look on the package, or go to a Website to see if there's a corporate owner. We don't have a lot of customers who ask that kind of question or are alarmed by the information," she said.

Tuitele emphasizes that Wild Oats has supported smaller brands for 20 years. Not offering products today because they're now owned by corporate food interests would be a mistake. "We'd have a lot of empty shelves because a lot of brands have been absorbed," she said. "We see many benefits to the consumer because the larger companies can reach more customers with a healthy-food product that has been raised sustainably."

Wild Oats sees corporate ownership as an investment in growth which can ultimately transition more acreage to organic production. "We think that a lot of these larger companies can learn from the smaller brands, and we think that's an important part of the equation."

With Whole Foods slated to open a store May 2008 in Trolley Square, it, too, will play a part in forging our local natural and organic food scene. Much is riding on its entrance into Salt Lake City. Will this Austin-based company endeavor to stock its shelves with products less tied to corporate behemoths?

Cathy Cochran-Lewis, spokesperson for Whole Foods, makes it clear that, like Wild Oats, it's been working with small companies absorbed by larger ones for many years. One benefit of corporate ownership is more distribution to a larger population. "[That] allows these products to become more mainstream," Cochran-Lewis said.

At the same time, the company "still works with numerous Mom-and-Pop companies," as well as medium-size companies. Whole Foods will also strive to offer local goods, provided they meet certain standards. "That's what we're interested in, and that's what we do in every market we open," she said.

THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWN

To say that the shelves of a downtown Salt Lake City Wal-Mart are bursting at the seams with organic and natural-food products would be a stretch.

Actually, it would be a downright lie. Hidden amid a boggling array of food items are a few organic and natural products vying for attention. There is no specific natural-foods section. You have to look, and you have to look hard.

Out of a dozen different ketchup offerings there is one organic selection: Heinz. A monstrous shelf laden with every type of cookie imaginable offers two organic choices to the interested consumer - namely Newman's Own Chocolate Chip and Annie's Cheddar Buddies. Sitting next to the cookies are Horizon brand shelf-safe milk products, chocolate and regular.

You'll find the refrigerated organic section huddled in a corner of the produce cold-case. The items within include Earthbound Farms lettuces, Smart Dogs, some Newman's organic potatoes and a forlorn-looking packet of organic plums, seemingly doomed to die a lonely death without ever leaving their plastic enclosure. All would fit in an average-size refrigerator. Wal-Mart may be in the early stages of asserting their place in the organic-food market but, as carriers of Horizon brand dairy products, it has quickly succeeded in becoming the nation's No. 1 seller of organic milk.

As 20-something Salt Lakers with a small child, Kristin and Josh Cameron frequent Wal-Mart for the convenience and price. Every penny counts. Both have noticed the new items on the shelves but neither is interested in supporting the organic market.

"We'd buy some products if they were comparably priced," Kristin says. "But it's not a big enough concern to really go out of our way to do it.

"We've done the research on organics and some produce it makes sense to buy, but others it just doesn't. It's not regulated well, so it's hard to say that you know what 'organic' really means."

Neither Kristin nor Josh feels the definition of organic holds real meaning and say that the federal government has not done a good job of clarifying whatever "organic" is supposed to mean.

"It doesn't make sense to pay twice as much for something that, really, we're not sure how much better it is‹and then the research on eating organic isn't available on how healthful it would be," Josh says.

The Camerons want solid, government-based organic definitions not to mention scientific proof to verify that these products would benefit their health. "If they came out and said, 'This is what "organic" truly means,'" notes Kristin, "[and] that there are real health benefits, and they proved that, then it would be worth spending the extra money. Right now, it's not."

Lewis and the Camerons shop stores that sit on opposite ends of the ideological scale but share at least one wish in common: transparent honesty in the foods industry.

This trust neither will be gained by the Camerons nor retained by Lewis if big business does not better inform the organic consumer about the products they purchase. Wild Oats is miles from the controversial labor practices of Wal-Mart on a perceptible level, but in the end, there are many similarities between the products they offer and who profits from selling them.

After all, once some of the money generated by organic products percolate to the top, Phillip Morris walks with your dollar - whether you smoke or not.

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