Ethical Shopping - Organics Evolving into Walmart Fare?

My first experience of organic was truly organic: a truck garden overflowing with richly colored, pungent-earthy smelling and succulent, intensely-flavored vegetables. The garden was tended with zeal and love as part of a food co-op, using all natural fertilizers and natural deterrents to pests and weeds. The meals out of that garden were sublime and oozed health. This was before organic saw its meteoric rise in the 1990's and was gradually transmogrified into the 2000's as a "brand."

Today, any supermarket or small village-style market worth its sea salt has a full blown organic section, complete with bushel and crate type displays to make you feel you're right on the farm inside Safeway or Piggly Wiggly. Organic is 50-100 percent more expensive, but shoppers are very willing to pay for the taste, health and environmental qualities of organic.

But to put Walmart and organic in the same sentence is oxymoronic. Organic Walmart? Yet, Walmart has added an organic section to its big box high-volume, low prices warehouses. So has Dean Foods.

Growing organic labels

Walmart and other uber companies tilling into the pure, earth-centric business of organic produce has sent up warning signals to a number of watchdog groups. Cornucopia Institute recently produced a pending study stating that large corporations are unduly shaping the "organic" label on food. Cornucopia contends that the Organic Trade Association engaged in "backroom dealings" that watered down federal organic guidelines—thus allowing huge corporations to come in with conveyor-belt organic foods that are not 100 percent organic.

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), an advocacy group based in Minnesota observes, "Consumer spending on organic has grown so much that we've attracted big players who want to bend the rules so that they can brand their products as organic without incurring the expenses involved in truly living up to organic standards,"

One of the outcomes of the dilution of the organic label is three very different organic designations for labels, which should make shoppers carefully tend to reading the labels.

The three are:

  1. "100 Percent Organic" label allows only organic ingredients and organic processing aids.

  2. "Organic" label allows only foods containing 95 percent or more organic ingredients and only a limited number of strictly regulated non-organic ingredients.

  3. "Made with Organic" must contain 70 percent or more organic ingredients.

Obviously, there is a huge difference between 100 Percent Organic and Made with Organic. Add up the amount of 30% nonorganic ingredients (meaning chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides) over the passage of a year, and you've basically reversed all the benefits of buying the 70 percent organic.

You as the organic shopper

In October 2005, Congress weakened the organic-labeling law despite protests from more than 325,000 consumers and 250 organic-food companies. An added amendment to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations Bill overturns a recent court ruling that barred the use of synthetic ingredients in "organic" foods. The OTA pushed for the change and claimed it will encourage the continued growth of organic foods.

With the OTA—which advocates for the businesses, and not the consumers—and Congress have presented us with another ethical choice in shopping for our organic fare. Do we settle for a mix of organic/synthetic (like a cotton/poly blend), or do we shop for the smaller, purer organic producers and outlets for the 100 percent Organic?

If enough consumers become aware of the labeling choices and realize that mixing chemical and organic is really a cancellation of the organic and is enormously profitable to the large companies—thus squeezing the smaller, purer organics—then the organic produce practice and philosophy may return to its roots.

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