Consumer Perception and Organics

Is the organic food industry leaving a bad taste in our mouths?

The aftermath of the Aurora Organic Dairy investigation has left many supporters of organics feeling confused and betrayed. Aurora’s practices do not represent those of the organic dairy industry as a whole, yet the surrounding controversy has led consumers to question the integrity of the organic label and the USDA program that regulates it.

How can we explain and defend the label and the many farmers who use it righteously? And how do we, as an organic community, remain a participant in the monitoring and shaping of organic standards and food policy?

Organic consumers care about how their food is produced. They look to the organic label to assure them that a standard has been met. Their vision includes farms that do not depend on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They envision organic animals that are free from confinement and over crowding, and raised without hormones and antibiotics.

The news about Aurora is enough to shake consumer confidence-and rightly so. There will always be fraud and deception where there is money to be made. However, the “bad apples” should not be allowed to destroy the reputations of the majority of organic farmers and handlers who comply with or exceed regulations.

How can consumers be reassured about their choices? Retailers need to be able to respond to such concerns. What does organic mean, and what sets it apart from other labels?

To start with, organic-unlike other eco-labels-is a regulated label, the use of which requires adherence to a USDA standard, oversight, and inspection, and the misuse of which can result in revocation and/or a fine.

Every certified organic product must carry the name of its certifier on the label. Certifiers, who are regulated under USDA’s accreditation, can attest to the product’s status. Certifiers are required by law to make available upon request information regarding certifications issued, a list of producers and handlers whose operations they have certified, and results of laboratory analyses for residues of pesticides and other prohibited substances.

Some questions are not easy to answer. Is organic the same as grass fed? No, they are not necessarily the same, but is organic better? That depends on individual consumer’s preferences. U.S. organic standards do not specify exactly what “access to pasture” means, nor do they currently list livestock stocking rates, but organic farmers or handlers should be able to respond to specific questions about their own practices. Detailing their livestock management systems is part of their organic plans and must be approved by their certifiers.

Some organic companies offer only products that meet requirements beyond those in the organic regulation. Most have point of purchase information and informative websites. Certification to other standards in addition to organic is becoming more common. Consumers can look for logos that indicate adherence to animal welfare standards or fair trade practices. The organic community has struggled with how to incorporate these ideals into the organic regulations. For now, it is a work in progress.

As the organic industry grows, there will be increased scrutiny of organic standards. One of the benefits of a National Organic Program (NOP) is that a process is established for handling complaints. If consumers or retailers feel that the regulations are not being upheld, they can send their concerns to the certifier or to NOP Compliance for investigation. Anyone can file a complaint. When violations are found, USDA decides how they will be resolved.

In the Aurora case, many people feel the resolution was a mere slap on the hand. Such decisions-good or bad-help consumers become more informed concerning their choices and allow them to speak out, vocally and with their food dollars. Those who have lost trust in Aurora can support other companies. The USDA continues to work on access-to-pasture regulations, which will clarify some of the gray areas in the law that affected this case.

The organic world is the product of years of discussion. It was created in an attempt to provide consumers with a consistent standard that they could expect from the organic label. It has grown far beyond what many envisioned, and it risks losing its identity as it becomes part of the “big business” picture. What has kept it alive has been its reputation as a viable choice in the marketplace-one that the public sees as utilizing farm and livestock systems that create healthy soil and restore ecological balance.

Retail stores most often supply food directly to the consumer. How would your store’s staff respond to concerns about organics? Many grocers have taken the extra step of being certified as a means of offering additional assurance. The National Cooperative Grocers Association and others have begun to develop an organic fraud detection program that will create a “checkpoint in the supply chain” of organic products. (See the November-December 2007 issue of Cooperative Grocer.) Such checks and balances are admirable steps in tracking violations and maintaining consumer confidence.

Some consumers will be interested in more than whether a product is organic or not. They may wish to support U.S. or locally produced foods and will have questions about sources. Staff who can help identify local organic products will be invaluable to these consumers.

Dealing directly with local growers can be additional work for a retailer. Fortunately, growers are beginning to form marketing networks and create labels that identify their products, making themselves more efficient to work with and more visible in the marketplace.

With the continued success of organic products, more big companies are going be entering the marketplace. Can we entrust the label to big business? Only if we hold ourselves as an organic community-from the USDA to big business to the smallest organic farm-accountable to a high level of scrutiny and integrity. It is now the job of the USDA to ensure that the organic standards are met. Consumers can ensure that the standards are maintained by developing more awareness of their food supply.

The organic label cannot be all things to all consumers. It does, however, provide guidelines that are meant to be followed and a process for reporting and stopping violations. As more cases are investigated and resolved by NOP, we will see how seriously USDA takes the regulation and its authority. Meanwhile, rather than give up on what has taken us 20 years to develop, we need to encourage supporters of the organic label to be its watchdogs.

National Organic Program Compliance
Telephone: 202/720-8311
Fax: 202/205-5772 or 559/487-5167
Email: NOP[email protected]

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