A 3,400-percent increase in sales in 24 years makes organic the fastest-growing consumer food and lifestyle trend in modern history, say independent researchers looking into the industry’s strategies and marketing practices.
What they’ve found, though, isn’t pretty. Those robust sales, they say, were built on the backs of American taxpayers with deceptive practices involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a willing participant.
With sales of $35 billion in the U.S. and $63 billion worldwide, the organic marketing industry has become very sophisticated, researchers found, working through advocacy groups brought in to practice fear-mongering, but without exposing the pricey organic brands that have grown up during this period of explosive growth.
When expanded to the so-called “natural products,” the organic industry’s sales reached $290 billion last year in the U.S. alone. But it seems the organic industry acts mostly out of fear that more consumers may come to accept the cheaper, conventional products as safe.
The “Organic Marketing Report” by Academics Review looks at the 25-year history of the modern organic industry. The independent international organization, founded by professors from the University of Illinois and the University of Melbourne, only accepts unrestricted monetary contributions.
What the report refers to as “intentionally deceptive” marketing is simply organic companies disclosing truthful information about how their food is produced, responded Scott Faber, executive director of Only Organics.
“Under the USDA organic standards, organic food must be grown without persistent pesticides and the use of GMO seeds, and organic livestock must be raised without antibiotics and hormones. Organic companies have the right to disclose these practices just as orange juice companies have the right to print ‘not from concentrate’ on their packaging,” Faber said.
Consumers want “more and more information about how their food is produced and organic gives them that,” he added. “This report will in no way deter consumers from seeking out transparency and making purchasing decisions based on this information.”
The report also wants more transparency, suggesting that both government and the organic industry currently fail to disclose that the USDA organic seal says nothing about food safety. However, they know through USDA’s own consumer polling that food sold under a USDA organic seal is seen by 65 percent of respondents as healthier, by 70 percent as safer, and by 46 percent as more nutritious.
None of these factors is included anywhere in USDA organic standards. The report quotes Michigan State University Law Professor Brandon Lupp as saying that those USDA organic seals are often found on products making false or misleading claims about health and safety benefits.
“These (health and safety) preferences are clearly driving consumer purchase decisions in the grocery store, but the correlation between the establishment of national organic standards, increased consumer confidence in organic products, and the resulting increase in production and sales cannot be ignored,” Lupp explains about the USDA organic seal’s influence on consumers.
Lupp also notes the USDA organic seal is sometimes associated with other government food safety agencies that have no connection to it, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
By contrast, the study points to the effectiveness of the Organic Trade Association’s marketing campaign, “Organic: It’s Worth It,” to justify the higher prices it requires consumers pay for its products. In its analysis of collaboration between organic brands and activist organizations, the report notes that the vice president of marketing for the organic company Nature’s Path was asked about whether fear is a smart way to market against genetically modified organisms.
“I don’t think you lead with fear about a brand in food, but you can, and perhaps should, lead with fear as an industry,” said Nature’s Darren Mahaffy.
“As illustrated in this report, organic companies market their products by promoting alleged health benefits connected to the absence GMOs, hormones, antibiotics and pesticides juxtaposed to health risks they associate with less expensive competing conventionally produced products, which may use their production tools,” the report states.
Academics Review goes back 25 years in its study of the organics industry. Included in the analysis are more than 1,000 news reports, 500 website and social media accounts, and reviews of hundreds of marketing materials, including advertisements, analyst presentations and reports by advocates. The report’s findings were reviewed by an independent panel with expertise in food science, economic and legal affairs.
“Our report finds 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,” it states. “The research found extensive evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive marketing activities are a primary cause for those misperceptions. This suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry for these misperceptions.
The report further charges the organic industry with “intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy” that is “enabled and conducted” by the U.S. government through the USDA organic program.
“It is our hope that responsible members of the organic food industry and government officials will use these findings to address consumer misperceptions about important issues of food safety and nutrition,” says Professor Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus University of Illinois Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition. “Accurate food safety, nutrition, and health information combined with consumer pocketbook protections should be a threshold standard for any U.S. government program that cannot be cooped by special interest marketing groups.”
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