Here’s a post I wrote for the Kossack foodie crowd. It repeats a bit what I’ve used here before but also breaks news for this space.
When Wal-Mart announced it was making a big move into organic food last year, I was convinced that they were going to run all the good producers out of business and doom all of us who care aboout what we eat to their cheap organic crap. It turns out I was wrong. As Reuters explained recently, organic food at Wal-Mart appears to be a washout, at least by Wal-Mart standards:
Organic was expected to be the next big food trend after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and others threw their weight behind the products, but many executives said this week that overall, consumers are not yet clamoring for such fare.
“It was a big push a year ago,” Alan Jope, Global Food Group Vice President at Unilever Plc, said at the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago this week. “Wal-Mart asked everyone for organic (food). At the end of the day consumers buy benefits and it’s not exactly clear what the benefits are from organic. They might end up being niche propositions.” . . .
Cadbury Schweppes Plc expanded the distribution of Mott’s organic apple juice when Wal-Mart allocated more shelf space to organic products, and sells organic apple sauce.
“You’ve seen the growth in organics,” said Cindy Hennessy, senior vice president of innovation at Cadbury Americas beverages. “Consumers are definitely walking the talk across all health, but including organics. It’s not as rapid as Wal-Mart might have liked or as any of us might have liked, but it is definitely growing.”
This story [And no, this isn't the good news yet] fits in beautifully with a general backlash against organic food that I’ve noticed for weeks now. Another good example of this backlash was actually the cover story in TIME a couple of weeks ago. “Eating Better Than Organic” was the title and it included this little nugget that practically made my head explode:
If scientists could conclusively prove that agricultural chemicals are harmful, we would all go organic. But it’s not clear, for instance, that the low levels of pesticide typically found on conventional produce cause cancer. The risks of long-term exposure to those residues are still undetermined.
If this reporter really believes this, he ought to go suck down a bucket of herbicide. Does he want to take chances with HIS children? There is a problem with organic food, but it has nothing to do with the philosophy behind it. It has to do with the way some of it is produced, what Michael Pollan has called “The Organic-Industrial Complex.”
As I understand it, farmers started organic farming as a reaction to the kind of industrial farming that dates from the early- to mid- Twentieth Century. Instead of worrying about quantity, organic farmers would worry about quality. Instead of perpuating monoculture (one cash crop), organic farmers would grow many. And most importantly, instead of getting caught up in a neverending cycle of pesticide applications, organic farmers would use more natural and labor intensive way of cultivating their crops. I wish organic food cost less too, but you have to understand it’s supposed to be expensive. In my experience, that’s reflected not only in the lack of pesticides, but in the taste [Yum, yum].
Wal-Mart selling organic food is not only a leap in the sense that they want to appeal to a higher-income customer base, it was a leap in the sense that it runs completely counter to the original organic philosophy. Wal-Mart has always cared more about price and volume than quality. Heck, that’s practically the reason they exist. Produce organic food on the scale needed to supply Wal-Mart and you have to revert to the industrial practices that organic food was supposed to be against.
So when Wal-Mart promised that they would deliver organic food at a Wal-Mart price, you had to wonder how it was going to turn out? Badly. Wal-Mart’s idea of organic at one store, to use a count I borrowed from a blogger in Oregon, is 44 separate items, including giant industrial organic companies like Horizon Dairies and Motts. Is that choice? Is that a big push into organic? I don’t think so.
But the fact that organic Wal-Mart food isn’t meeting expectations isn’t the fault of organic food in general. All organic food is not the same. As many have said before me (and contrary to what that guy at TIME seems to think), fewer pesticides are always a blessing, but if you buy industrial organic food you aren’t getting all you should be for the extra price you’re paying.
In short, blame Wal-Mart for the poor sales of organic food there, not organic food itself. Wal-Mart is still the home of cheap organic crap. I think the good news regarding organic food sales at Wal-Mart is that it seems to have demonstrated that consumers can actually tell the difference between the good organic food and the substantially less so.