Monday, July 6, 2009

Why You Have to Read Those Labels

I remember reading an article in Time magazine last year titled "America's Shrinking Groceries" that discussed how the size of what we were buying in the grocery story was changing before our very eyes--and we were, for the most part, completely unaware of that change. The gist of the story is this: what you think of as a "half-gallon" of ice cream probably isn't. More than likely it is actually 1.5 quarts. A true half-gallon would be 2 quarts.

This is happening all over the grocery. The Time article points out that Wrigley's gum has gone from the 17-stick PlenTPack to a 15-stick Slim-Pack. That box of cereal that used to be 16 oz? Look closely, because now it's just 14. Even bars of soap weigh less. One of the experts consulted for the article, Harvard Business School Professor John Gourville, explains that people are more sensitive to changes in price than they are to changes in quantity. He said, "Most people can tell you how much a box of cereal costs, but they have no clue how much is actually in it." So rather than keep a product the same size and increase the price, the manufacturers make the packages smaller and keep prices the same. Most people won't notice a size difference, though they might notice the new packaging. And since the price didn't change, they are happy to go with the flow.

Now something similar is happening with organic foods. Most people don't know the difference between terms like "organic" and "natural." And Horizon, a division of Dean Foods best known for its organic dairy products and the brand with the highest dollar volume of any in the organic industry, is on the verge of taking advantage of that positioning and consumer ignorance. Just last week it was reported that the agribusiness giant intended to create an entirely new, lower-priced product category, "natural dairy," aimed squarely at pirating away organic customers.

In a press release issued by The Cornucopia Institute, Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, said the move comes at a particularly bad time for organic dairy farmers, who are in financial crisis due the glut of organic milk on the market. Kastel added, "Responsible participants in this industry are using their marketing strength to ramp up organic demand. Dean has instead chosen to profiteer at the expense of the hard-working family farmers who have built this industry."

In April, 2006, The Cornucopia Institute presented a research project entitled "Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk" to the USDA National Organic Standards Board in which it called the domestic organic dairy industry a success story, but also pointed out that "this success story is now at risk; it is threatened by powerful economic interests that covet their share of the organic pie (now in excess of $15 billion in annual sales) and who are willing to twist, manipulate, and even ignore federal organic regulations in their rush to cash in. Some agribusiness giants are depending on consumers not knowing the difference between their product and those produced with ethics and integrity."

While it appears Horizon isn't actually trying to fool anybody into thinking something is organic when it isn't, it does appear that it is using its positioning as a well-known organic leader combined with the ambiguous food labeling we have in this country to its market advantage. What is "natural" milk? All milk, except that which is synthetic, is "natural." Horizon is clearly playing on it's position as an organic leader in the hopes that consumers will buy this new, cheaper product, thereby driving up Dean Foods profits at the expense of other, reputable, organic dairy producers.

This isn't the first time Dean Foods has hoped that consumers were too lazy to read the label or too stupid to know the difference in terms. In a somewhat similar move, the company recently outraged consumers with its switch from organic to conventionally grown "natural" (read: pesticide-sprayed and/or genetically altered) soybeans in its line of Silk soy milk products. And it isn't like they made a big public announcement about it, either. They just sort of slid it by, hoping nobody would notice.

Of course, Dean Foods would like consumers to believe it only has their best interest at heart. The OCA press release quoted Sara Loveday, a marketing communications manager at WhiteWave, as saying, "We've only been organic in the past and the majority of our business will remain organic. These are our first natural offerings in the marketplace, and Horizon always tries to provide great-tasting products for moms and for families."

Uh huh.

This is an ongoing problem within the organic foods industry. There is a growing demand for organic foods, but greed within the food-industrial complex continues to drive domestic organic farmers out of business. A recent USDA publication, "Emerging Issues in the Organic Industry," concluded that organic manufacturers and farmers are facing escalating competition from large conventional food manufacturers entering the organic market, and companies are increasingly looking to China and other countries to import organic foods and ingredients.

According to the USDA’s report, U.S. organic soybean production started declining several years ago despite steeply increasing demand for organic feed grains and consumer products such as soy milk. Interestingly, manufacturers complain that they cannot find enough organic products to meet demand, yet, if you look at the situation, as the Cornucopia Institute did, it becomes clear that they are by no means innocent victims of forces beyond their control, but rather they helped create these shortages by opting for cheaper organic imports instead of supporting domestic farmers with sustainable prices.

Two of the major findings of the USDA report are that "conventional food corporations taking over successful independent organic companies, and increasing dependence on imports" are not unrelated, suggests Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute and primary author of the organization’s study "Behind the Bean: The Heroes and Charlatans of the Organic Soy Industry." When agribusiness corporations enter the organic market, like Dean Foods when it bought the Silk soy milk brand from a pioneering independent company, they sometimes look abroad for cheaper imports or abandon organics altogether, rather than maintain their commitment to supporting domestic organic farmers, Vallaeys notes.

So, once again, I am compelled to note the interconnectedness of food and politics, of my food choices and the world around me. Sometimes buying "local" might just mean buying domestic, as in Buy American. But we have to be on top of our grocery game because nobody is going to do this for us.

Label reading is crucial if you want to be sure you are getting what you pay for. And if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be aware that the brand you always bought and trusted, the brand that has always been organic, may not be anymore. Be aware that "natural" and "organic" are not synonymous. And be aware that nobody is going to look out for you and your family but you. And, really, that's the way it should be. It's up to us to take care of ourselves.

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