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Special edition: Organic & Non-GMO

The organic food industry has been engaged in a 'multi-decade public disinformation campaign', claims report

By Elaine WATSON , 21-Apr-2014
Last updated on 23-Apr-2014 at 17:48 GMT

The organic food industry has been engaged in a 'multi-decade public disinformation campaign', claims report

Consumers have spent years paying over the odds for organic foods based on the erroneous belief - promulgated by stakeholders with a vested interest - that they are healthier and safer than their conventional counterparts, claims a controversial new report.

While consumers buy organic for lots of reasons, consumer research shows that sustainability and animal welfare concerns are not key purchase drivers, claim the authors of The Organic Marketing Report.

Instead, the erroneous belief that organic foods are healthier, coupled with “perceived [and the authors argue, unfounded] safety concerns tied to pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and GMOs" are the "critical components driving sales", they argue.

While the USDA has explicitly stated that its organic seal is not a measure of nutrition or quality, and is “not a statement about food safety”, consumer surveys consistently show that shoppers believe products bearing the USDA organic seal are safer, healthier and more nutritious, notes the report.

And these “misperceptions” have been consistently exploited by organic marketers and repeatedly peddled by advocacy organizations funded by the organic food industry such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, and the Environmental Working Group, it claims.

The food safety trope is found throughout industry and supportive advocacy public relations materials.”

And this “multi-decade public disinformation campaign has been conducted with the implied use and approval of the US government endorsed USDA Organic Seal in direct contradiction to U.S. government stated policy for use of said seal.”

Dr Bruce Chassy: “Accurate food safety, nutrition and health information combined with consumer pocket book protections should be a threshold standard for any US government program that cannot be co-opted by special interest marketing groups.”

The report - which has been strongly criticized by the organic food lobby - is based on a view of 200+  published academic, industry and government research reports into why consumers buy organic foods, plus thousands of news reports, website and social media account evaluations, marketing materials, ads, analyst presentations, speeches and advocacy reports generated between 1988 and 2014.

It was conducted by Academics Review , a non-profit founded by David Tribe, PhD, a senior lecturer in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne; and Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor of food microbiology and a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy

The authors conclude: “Consumers have spent hundreds of billions of dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes.  

“The research found extensive evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities are a primary cause for these misperceptions. This suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy.”

Steve Hoffman: Let's talk about the true value of organic

However, organic food industry stakeholders said the report was just a blatant attempt to “undermine the value and benefits of organic food in favor of a system of monoculture and genetic engineering”

Steve Hoffman, managing partner at natural products industry consultancy Compass Natural, told FoodNavigator-USA that agricultural biotechnology is “not delivering on its promise to provide enhanced nutrition and feed the world … but in fact degrades our soils, contaminates our waterways, fisheries, and air, and affects our health.”

Steve Hoffman: Report is blatant attempt to 'undermine the value and benefits of organic food in favor of a system of monoculture and genetic engineering'

He added, “Let's change the conversation. Let’s talk about the true value of organic. Organic prices reflect the real cost of food production and labor, not some ‘premium’ over the cost of non-organic food that may carry its own price in terms of contributing to ongoing dietary and environmental exposure to cancer-causing pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.”

Organic Trade Association: Organic is different

Organic Trade Association executive vice president Laura Batcha added: "Organic is different.  In the marketplace, food producers have a right to tell consumers why. You can guarantee this fringe report will not dissuade families from seeking information about how their food is produced because consumers have a right to choose.

"There are 18,000 hardworking American organic farmers, ranchers, and food-makers. When they communicate the stringent requirements to grow food without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and GMOs, raise animals without antibiotics and hormones, and process food without preservatives and artificial colors, it is truthful and transparent, To suggest otherwise is, in fact, what’s misleading."

Organic Consumers Association: Consumers choose organic for a variety of reasons, not just higher, or perceived higher, nutritional value

Katherine Paul, associate director of the Organic Consumers Association, meanwhile, said that the authors of the report were attempting to “lump organic [underpinned by strict standards] and natural [not legally defined] into the same category when they are clearly and vastly different”.

The words ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ are “used by food manufacturers, often fraudulently, purely as a marketing strategy,” she added. “They are meaningless. Unfortunately, consumers are often confused about the difference between organic and natural and do, indeed, pay a premium for ’all natural’ products that provide no nutritional benefit.”

As to whether USDA organic foods are more nutritious, the jury is still out, she conceded, but noted that “consumers choose organic for a variety of reasons, not just higher, or perceived higher, nutritional value. At the top of the list of reasons is the desire to lessen their exposure to toxic chemicals.

“Consumers also choose organic out of concern for the environment… or to avoid eating animal products derived from animals that are pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, and fed genetically modified grains that literally make them sick [click HERE to read a rebuttal of this claim by professor Wayne Parrott].”

Finally, Scott Faber, executive director of Only Organic, added: "What the report refers to as “intentionally deceptive” marketing is simply organic companies disclosing truthful information about how their food is produced...

"The truth is consumers are looking for more and more information about how their food is produced and organic gives them that. This report will in no way deter consumers from seeking out transparency and making purchasing decisions based on this information." 

Click HERE to read the full report.  

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