USDA Organic. A Labeling Nightmare.

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Many companies are now tapping into the “green” market to sell their products.  It is an extremely viable market with consumers becoming more aware of how their purchases affect their everyday health and well-being.  Companies often use claims that sound environmental.  These claims are often vague and may be false.  Consumers have now begun to question these environmental claims which leads to an even bigger question of corporate responsibility and honesty.  Companies who mislead or vaguely represent their products are not only a problem for consumers but they are also a problem for companies who brand themselves as environmentally friendly. Overuse of “green” marketing is beginning to saturate the market and more consumers are feeling as though these labels may not mean anything.

Companies that are trying to become legitimate environment friendly operations are losing traction with consumers. As environmentally conscious companies make more products that really are green, the amount of products that flood the market that are not continues to be a problem.  Inaccurate marketing of these products has the potential to not only harm consumers and marketing firms, they also have a lasting consequence on the environment itself.  If consumers continue to find products that are green washed, we are likely to disregard all environmental claims and avoid all products because we can’t trust them.

One area of particular focus is the USDA Organic food label.  Consumers who seek out this label are often secured with those purchases and we should be.  It’s a government label correct?  The USDA has set standards for the use of the word “organic” on food labels.  These labels are more meaningful than others like “natural” and “free range”, but are they really?  Food producers directly market the “organic” label but all to often, these products are green washed just like other products labeled “all natural”. Several categories are permitted to use the USDA Organic label.  The first of these of course is if the product is 100% organic, then it can be labeled accordingly.  The next few categories are also permitted and this is where the trouble begins.  Products may also be labeled organic if, excluding water and salt, the product is 95% organic by weight.  The next category can be labeled USDA Organic if 75% organic content can be verified “made with organic” and list three organic ingredients.  Lastly, if the product is made with less than 75% organic, the back panel or side panel of the packaging may list the organic ingredients.

As if all of this wasn’t confusing enough, the USDA Organic label does allow some synthetic materials to be included.  For example, nitrates and nitrites are permitted in organic meats.  These chemicals are used in red meat to give it the red color.  Otherwise, meat would turn grey before it decomposes or spoils. We think we are purchasing the USDA Organic label but in all reality, we are purchasing chemically dyed meat that has the USDA Organic Label.  The “free range” tag can also be used as a form of green washing.  Under USDA standards, “free range” meat must be given an opportunity to go outside for an “undetermined” amount of time.  As a farmer, I could label my chickens “free range” if I let them outside for, let’s say 30 seconds a day and put them back in their enclosure.  This is the problem.

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One possible alternative for those of us that want to eat organically, is to just grow our own food but that is not possible for everyone.  The idea that some farmers are able to get away with green washing is a huge problem as well.  We expect to go to a farmer’s market and see naturally grown and organically produced foods.  Are we being fooled?  Another alternative is to move towards an even stricter set of standards.  For example the Demeter Biodynamic certification, used in Norway, is a much stricter standard than the standards used by our USDA.  These certifications are also used in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.  The Demeter Biodynamic standard goes above and beyond USDA Organic and takes the whole farm system into account, treating the farm as a living organism.  The current USDA standard is severely watered down and consumers need to be aware of what they are buying.  In order for the USDA Organic label to remain relevant and not just be another green washing scheme, something needs to be done.  The USDA needs to catch up to the rest of the world and provide its consumers with an answer.  We want to know what’s in our food and we want to be able to trust those that provide it to us.  The ball is your court USDA.

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Sources:

USDA Organic Certification

Demeter Biodynamic Certification

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