In the past, I have repeatedly implied and/or outright stated that Wal-Mart’s decision to increase its organic food offerings will “kill” organic food. An article in today’s Times (which my friend Robert just sent me) makes it abundantly clear to me now that organic food is already dead:
In 2002, the Department of Agriculture established standards that foods must meet to be called organic, but last year an amendment was passed to allow 38 synthetic ingredients â€” including baking powder, pectin, ascorbic acid and carbon dioxide â€” in some organic products.
Some lobbyists and industry trade groups are fighting this measure. I was appalled to learn that many other organic-sounding, eco-friendly terms â€” like â€œfree-range,â€ â€œcage freeâ€ or â€œpasture fedâ€ in many cases mean very little. A so-called free-range chicken may only spend a few minutes a day outside, at best.
Cage-free â€œmay mean the animal is out of the cageâ€ or it may mean nothing at all, Ms. Rangan said.
And forget â€œnatural.â€
â€œConsumers may think it means the same as organic, but thereâ€™s no significant policing of the term â€˜natural,â€™ â€ said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group. â€œItâ€™s typically a marketing term.â€
In fact, the article tells us that, “An uninformed consumer can end up paying 50 to 100 percent more for products that are no healthier and a lot harder on the wallet.” This explains why Wal-Mart wants to sell more organic food â€“ they can get uninformed consumers to rake out more money for the same unhealthy sold there anyway. You just know they’ll have a huge display for organic Twinkies as soon as they’re available.
Yet while the term “organic” may be dead, this does not mean that all organic products are a rip off. Using various consumer studies as a guide, the Times reporter offers advice on what organic products are and are not worth the price:
Paying more for organic packaged foods like bread, cereal, pasta, chips, canned goods also may not be worth the extra money. The more food is processed, the more its original nutrients are stripped away. You might as well buy a mainstream brand and save some money.
Some conventionally grown produce has so little pesticide residue that it does not make sense to pay more for the organic varieties. These include: broccoli, asparagus, onions, corn, avocados, papayas and peas. Also, if you can peel the item, you may not need to buy organic.
WHICH foods are worth the higher price? According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organic research organization, the so-called dirty dozen â€” apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries â€” tend to have a high pesticide residue, even when washed. These are worth buying organic, as is baby food, which tends to be made from condensed fruits and vegetables.
Likewise, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products that carry an organic label are free of pesticides, synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics. If a manufacturer does not use the term organic, but says the product is â€œhormone freeâ€ or â€œdoes not contain antibiotics,â€ â€œthose claims are somewhat meaningful,â€ Ms. Rangan said.
So what do interested organic consumers do? First: figure out what your concern is. The NYT says that food you can peel might not be worth an organic price, but if you’re as concerned about the environment as you are about your health this will make no difference. Next: read labels, ask questions and get in the face of companies which sell industrial organic to make sure that they know that your concern and willingness to pay more for real yummy, environment-friendly, healthy food is not a passing fad.
As I’ve written before, if the term “organic” is going to get watered down to nothing transparent has to be the new organic so that we as consumers can make these kinds of decisions ourselves. And if you don’t have the time or inclination to learn about how what you eat is made, you need to shop at a store can you trust. And if you think you can trust Wal-Mart I have about a year and a half of blog posts I’d like you to read.
Nevertheless, I still feel the need to write these words: I’m sorry, Wal-Mart. You’re not going to kill organic food. â€“ You’re just picking at the carcass.
PS Those interested in matters organic may also want to check out the site “Organic Means Organic.” There’s a particularly good series of ongoing essays there that tackles the Whole Foods dilemma from a much more aggressive perspective than I’ve been taking.