Opinion: Organic label misleads consumers

Hank Campbell

Consumers today have more food choices available than at any other time in human history. More options mean more information to consider, but the terms and labels that communicate differences in food production and preparation are all too often more confusing than helpful. The word “organic” is one of these.

Many people believe that something labeled organic means the product is healthier than a non-organic version. That’s the impression organic growers and manufacturers have tried to create. Yet the government considers it just another marketing claim. 

When the first federal organic food standards came out in 2000, President Clinton’s secretary of agriculture, Dan Glickman, was unequivocal. “Let me be clear about one thing,” he said at an event announcing the new label. “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.”

Yet the organic industry took that government-approved marketing tool, used it to differentiate their products from competitors, and added their own health claims. 

Organic marketers understood that the higher price tag of their products would deter customers unless they made them afraid to use the cheaper alternatives. So in addition to touting non-existent health benefits, organic marketers embarked on a campaign to make consumers believe they would be harmed and their health undermined if they bought conventional food.

“USDA’s research shows that more than 70 percent of consumers are likely to believe a food is safer, more nutritious or of higher quality if it bears the organic label,” said former USDA secretary John Block.

That explains the prevalence of the word on food packaging.

Many organic foods features the logo of the Non-GMO Project, the nonprofit organization founded by two “natural foods” grocery stores whose board of directors is replete with high-ranking members of the organic industry. 

This group is dedicated to reducing the size of the market for foods created through genetic engineering and preventing new biotech crops from being commercialized. They do this by evaluating food products according to how “high risk” they are of containing GMO (genetically modified organism) “contamination.”

Few people grabbing groceries in the store are going to know that something labeled “organic” doesn’t mean it is free of pesticides. The industry’s dirty little secret is that they use “organic” pesticides. These are the chemicals approved by USDA’s National Organic Program, which includes toxic substances like copper sulfate and rotenone.

In making these pesticide-free and natural claims, they count on consumer ignorance of the fact that organic food can have synthetic ingredients, over 50 of them, all determined by organic farmers and lobbyists appointed to an industry panel within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In attacking GMOs, they go against the hundreds of government studies conducted over years that demonstrate that genetically engineered food is safe.

They also hide the fact that organic food can be genetically modified. Rather than using one patented kind of genetic engineering, they are permitted to employ mutagenesis, bathing seeds in chemicals and radiation, which is still used today. More than 2,000 types of products were genetically modified using it, including organic foods.

These tactics have been wildly successful. 

In the 18 years since the USDA organic label was created, organic food has become a $124 billion industry based on claims that the government specifically said were false.

So the next time you’re wondering if the higher cost of an organic item is worth it, remember that all you’re really paying for is the price of fear.

Hank Campbell is president of the American Council for Science and Health.