Organic Branding Becomes Less Organic, More Branding

July 26, 2012  |  Class Actions

Placing “organic” before any given food product has shown to be a lucrative marketing tool as national trends highlight the benefits of a clean diet comprised of pure ingredients.  Just 10 years ago, organic foods were mostly restricted to pricey health food stores and farmers’ markets.  Now, organic (or at least organic branding) has permeated the market and can be found on virtually every aisle in your local grocery store.  Many organic purists are questioning the integrity of what the organic food movement has become.  These doubts are heightened by an emerging trend concerning the reliability of food manufacturers. 

A wave of deceptive advertising claims have swept the food market, leaving consumers wary on how to navigate the grocery store and choose which products suit them best.  The popular Muscle Milk products are currently being sued over falsely advertising it’s ready-to-drink products for using such terms like “healthy sustained energy” and “healthy fats.” The makers of Nutella recently settled a deceptive advertising lawsuit for $3 million after claims were made that Ferrero, makers of the nutella product, misled consumers by promoting the product as “healthy” and “part of a balanced meal.” Several other suits against major food manufacturers, including Kellogg, are currently in litigation.  So just how well can we trust what advertisers and product labels claim when it comes to our food? And more importantly, what constitutes what is truly “organic?”

To believe that organic foods consist of pure, locally produced ingredients from family farms would be a market fallacy.  The Department of Agriculture established regulations for the organic industry in 2002.  Since then, corporate food distributors have purchased most familiar organic food brands; with very few independently owned organic companies left standing in your grocer’s aisle.

Household names like Kashi, Bear Naked and Wholesome & Hearty are owned by cereal giant Kellogg. Naked Juice is owned by Pespi Co., and companies like Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars share the rest of the organic “wealth.”  With food juggernauts like these comprising the bulk of the organic industry, organic purists are circumspect as to who is determining which ingredients, or percentage of, may be labeled as organic. 

In late May, the National Organics Standards Board met to decide which ingredients could be allowed in “certified organic” products.  Among those up for discussion were carrageenan and synthetic inositol.  Carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener, has a fairly controversial health record.  Synthetic inositol is manufactured using chemical processes.

Michael J. Potter, founder of Eden Foods, one of the remaining independent organic food producers, attended the meeting and voiced his objections to such ingredients. The board feigned interest in Potters claims for roughly three minutes, according to Potter, and voted 10 to 5 to keep carrageenan on the list of non-organic ingredients allowed on a “certified organic” food label. 

The National Organics Standards Board has consisted of several controversial members, such as Katrina Heinze, a General Mills executive, whose company has a major interest in promoting and profiting from genetically engineered products.   In fact, as corporate membership on the board has increased, so, too, has the number of non-organic materials approved for organic foods.

It would seem that the added profit value of “certified organic” has become such a hot commodity that it has, in fact, lessened the actual value of organic foods.  The purpose or buying organic initially hinged on escaping the mass-market engineered food industry riddled with chemical additives. With more and more organic foods sharing a corporate umbrella with processed foods, it is difficult to trust the shareholder’s intent on upholding the organic standard.  As organic foods become more aligned with “big food” manufacturers, many spectators question whether using “certified organic” will eventually follow suit in the trend of deceptive advertising litigation.

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