Labeling Watchdogs: How the Organic Community Became an Industry

From by Kathlee Freeman
Labeling Watchdogs: How the Organic Community Became an Industry

For many consumers, organic food may bring to mind bucolic pastures and family-owned farms—but it’s also a booming industry. Data from the Nutrition Business Journal indicates that organic sales in the United States totaled US$35 billion in 2014. In fact, business is so good that food giants like Kellogg, PepsiCo, and General Mills, have gotten in on the act.

“We have become a victim of our own success,” Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, explains.

Maintaining the stringency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic label and ensuring that companies comply with organic standards are causes for concern as the industry grows. For instance, Kashi, which is owned by the Kellogg Company and includes the word “organic” in some of their products, dropped its all-natural label in 2014 after a lawsuit accused the company of false advertising. And research by The Cornucopia Institute found the brand relied on genetically engineered ingredients --- and charged as much or more for their “natural” products with GMOs as some leading brands for charge for certified organic products.

And, while the phrase “all-natural” is not regulated by the USDA, the term “organic” is. Foods that include this label must meet a list of requirements which includes provisions for animal welfare, elimination of genetically modified organisms, and restrictions on the use of pesticides.

The Cornucopia Institute is on the forefront of ensuring the value and meaning of the organic label. Kastel tells Food Tank how the organization benefits consumers and helps regulate the industry.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to begin work in the farming industry?

Mark Kastel (MK): I personally became involved in farming because I always had a romantic vision of the industry as being the most tangible and fundamentally important to society. I still feel that way.

My first involvement in agriculture was working for the technology giants International Harvester and J.I. Case, which are both manufacturers of tractors and other farm implements. I made the paradigm shift to organics after becoming severely ill, likely from pesticide exposure. That's not an atypical story. Many of the pioneering organic farmers eliminated toxic agrichemicals from their farms after a family member, or livestock, became sick or injured.

FT: As the senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, how do you help family farmers maintain their businesses?

MK: After falling victim to a rapacious economy in the 1970s and 1980s, pioneering organic farmers looked to create a more ecologically and economically sustainable production and business model. Part of the foundation of the organic movement was as an economic-justice vehicle for family-scale farmers.

Now that organics has grown into a US$35 billion industry, with major agribusinesses owning the majority of the leading brands, we see the same macroeconomic trends, like a shift to factory farm production and imports, injuring organic farmers in the United States.

Our job is to make sure that everyone in this industry is complying with the spirit and letter of the federal law and that ethical farmers, and their business partners, are not placed at a competitive disadvantage. This pays dividends for consumers and ensures that they are receiving authentic organic food and not being exploited in the marketplace.

FT: What does your work with the USDA and/or National Organic Program entail?

MK: The Cornucopia Institute acts as both a corporate and governmental watchdog for the organic industry. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 is a beautiful piece of legislation that balanced industry interests and created the National Organic Standards Board, as a buffer, assuring that corporate agribusiness lobbyists would not water down the true meaning of organics.

Unfortunately, in the classic collaborative relationship between big business and regulators, the USDA's National Organic Program has catered to the industry's primary lobby group, The Organic Trade Association, rather than the interests of farmers and consumers.

Through involvement in regulatory oversight, congressional action, and, unfortunately, the court system, our goal is to make sure that the laws enforced.

But the most potent weapon in our arsenal, in protecting the integrity of the organic label, is empowering organic stakeholders, so they can reward the true heroes in this industry.

FT: What type of information does the Cornucopia Institute provide to consumers and the media in terms of sustainable agriculture in our country?

MK: One of our tactical approaches is to educate consumers, and wholesale buyers, so they can make discerning purchasing decisions in the marketplace. We have conducted research in organic sectors, including dairy, egg, soy foods, infant formula, and cereals. Scorecards and buying guides are the byproduct of this research, which allows purchasers to exercise their clout in the marketplace. By doing so, they are purchasing the safest and most nutrient-dense food for their families.

FT: Have you seen any big shifts in organic farming and farming families (economically, socially, etc.) since you co-founded The Cornucopia Institute?

MK: Yes. We used to call this "the organic community." It's now an industry. There is nothing wrong with economic success and growth, as long as it doesn't compromise the values that made organics successful in the first place.

We now have a bifurcated industry. On one end we have thousands of wonderful organic farms, small and large independent manufacturers, and marketers that have never lost the foundational vision that organics represented and truly “walk the talk.”

On the other end of the spectrum, we have anonymous companies, private label brands, and agribusiness, like Smuckers, WhiteWave, Kellogg’s, and General Mills, which operate, to a great degree, in secret. In terms of eggs, milk, and meat, much of what is labeled as "organic" comes from factory farms with thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of animals, generally in confined conditions. We have also seen an exponential increase in the importation of animal feed and ingredients for processed food being represented as organic.

FT: Is there a main focus for Cornucopia in 2015? Any specific projects?

MK: We are about to release a couple of new studies, an update to the Scrambled Eggs report and scorecard, rating all organic egg brands in the United States. An upcoming report will analyzing organic claims for commercial pet food, including a critical look at ingredients, some which are approved for use in organics, that can cause serious illness and cancer in our companion animals. We will also continue to concentrate on our core-mission of oversight of the USDA and corporate participants.

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