Thoughts on Greenwashing

pg21 USDA Organic Label Thoughts on Greenwashing

This post comes from our industryinsiders, Jessica Manganello. Find her @mangojess

So, I was surfing the web yesterday and I came across the mostfantastic invention to date: bacon stuffed hot dogs. Oh.My. God. Yumm!

I know, I know. As a total, annoying, scold your friends for beingwasteful, Greenie, my love of meat is a bit of a contradiction. We allhave our vices. I have several Michael Pollan books sitting on top ofmy “too read” pile and the greenness of a meat vs. vegetarian dietdebate will have to wait until another day. On the plus side, the 4505hot dogs are made with all natural ingredients, uncured, and hormone& antibiotic free. So, that is sustainable and healthy right?

This got me thinking. How “natural” and healthy can you make ahotdog stuffed with bacon? What does “all natural” even mean? Is thisjust the completed product? Does it include all the ingredients? Is this a representation of the entire life cycle of the product from birth ofthe animal until it ends up in my mouth? I obviously need more hobbies.

This is a big issue, however, and there is a lot of confusion amongconsumers in the market place. The big labels that exist are “certified organic,” “organic”, “100% organic”, “Made with organic ingredients”,“contains organic ingredients”, “all natural”, “natural”, “free range”,“sustainably harvested”, “no drugs or growth hormones”, etc. Phew…….nowonder there is confusion. So what do all these labels mean?

The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) set up theNational Organic Program (NOP) in 2002, which has put regulations andthird party auditing systems in place. The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to agricultural products, or rather raw, fresh products, andprocessed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients. Theterms a producer is allowed to use depend on the percentage of organicingredients in the product.

“100 percent organic”—means that only organically producedingredients* and processing aids are used. So essentially, this is thebest option. Green through and through.

“Organic”—most of what we see is either labeled ‘organic’ or‘certified organic.’ This means that at least 95% of the ingredients*must be organic. Any remaining ingredients must be nonagriculturalsubstances on the National List.

*excluding water and salt

For both of these it is good to know that while a producer may usethe USDA Organic logo, they aren’t required to. Good fact to be awareof while shopping. Organic products must identify each organicallyproduced ingredient in the ingredient list and they must identify theircertifying agent. Organic foods must also be the product of organicfarming practices, which are practices that recycle resources andpromote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without using syntheticpesticides, GMO’s, petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-basedfertilizers. If it is meat that we are talking about, Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given no antibiotics or growthhormones.

Also, any products labeled “100 percent organic” or “organic” cannotbe produced using methods such as sewage sludge or ionizing radiation.

Wait, what??? Does that mean that non-organic products can be madeusing sewage sludge? Next time you come across someone who arguesagainst organic, throw out that nice little tidbit. Discussion over.

“made with organic ingredients”—these products must contain at least70% organic ingredients and list up to three of the organic ingredientsor food groups prominently. i.e. “soup made with organic peas,potatoes, and carrots” or “soup made with organic vegetables.” Hereagain, no sewage and no radiation.

If a processed product contains less than 70% organic ingredients,they can’t use the term “organic”, but they can identify any organicingredients in the ingredients section of the label. So if you havetime to read every can, jar, box, and or bag in the store, have fun with that!

“Natural”—this term is only regulated by the USDA when it is appliedto meat and poultry (nothing else). This term means that the foods areminimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificialsweeteners, colors, flavors, or other artificial additives; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers. They are required to be minimally processed, meaning that the processing method does not fundamentallychange them. The labeling must also explain how the producer is usingthe term ‘natural.’ Using the term “natural” in line with the USDA regs, does not have anything to do with how the sources of those foods wereraised. Meaning, it has nothing to do with whether the animals were fed grass or corn, organic or not, hormones or not, etc.

Why do we go to all this trouble as a country to regulate Organic and why do we as consumers care you ask? Good Question!

Well there are a lot of arguments stating that organic foods are notany healthier than non-organic. Of course the food marketing institutein their 2007 report made that statement and then immediately followedit with the research showing that children who eat organic foods areexposed to “significantly lower” levels of organophosphorus pesticides. I can’t pronounce that; it must be bad. Organics also havesignificantly higher levels of cancer fighting antioxidants, generally30% more. Organically produced food also has lower levels of unsafefungi than conventional samples, and less risk of e. coli contamination(in the case of livestock). Every year more research comes out showingus that organic farming results in better nutrition for us and betterenvironmental practices. So that leads into why we nitpick andregulate. We want to make sure that consumers are protected and know(and receive) exactly what they are buying.

There are penalties for misusing any of the USDA labels, or usingthem when not certified. If a producer knowingly sells or labels anyproduct as organic that is not produced and handled in line with theNPO’s regulations, they can be liable for a civil penalty of up to$11,000 per violation. This also applies to retailers. They aresubject to regulatory requirements concerning their handling of organicproducts and are subject to fines of up to $10,000 per violation. Sothey can’t knowingly sell a non-organic product that is labeled asorganic (hear that Wal-Mart? tsk tsk), allow unpackaged organic products to contact unpackaged conventional ones, or permit organic products tocontact prohibited substances like fungicides, preservatives, orfumigants. This is a pretty tall order.

Again, Organic is the only regulated term. So what about the rest?“all natural”, “free range”, “sustainably harvested”……they can meanwhatever the producer wants them to mean. Generally speaking, when aproducer uses the term “natural” or “all natural” when not referring tomeat, they are expected to follow the USDA meat guidelines discussedabove. Since there are no regulations or oversight, however, it ispretty much up to the producer to define for themselves what “natural”means.

This is pretty dangerous, given that marketing studies have shownthat American consumers mistakenly believe that “natural” is actuallygreener than “organic,” that “organic” is a fancy way of sayingexpensive, and that “natural” is a regulated term. “All natural” wasthe second-most common claim on food products available in 2008 and hasincreased in popularity. If we go by the USDA meat requirement ofminimally processed, then all natural products will not contain anyingredients not readily available to the average cook, aka nothingrequiring a high tech lab.

If we go by this definition however, some of our most loved brandswould no longer be able to label themselves as “natural” including Ben& Jerry’s, Kashi, and Gorton’s. So for now we have to giveourselves an extra 30 minutes at the store to look at the ingredientslist.

Obviously, the term “natural” needs to be expanded and betterregulated. As does “free range” which is often used now to mean thatthere is access to the outdoors, not that the animals actually make itoutside. Think one doggie door for 30,000 chickens type of scenario.

So how do we protect consumers from all of these possibly misleadinglabels? Do we have other regulations that can be applied? Wow, thesequestions are so insightful; it is like I am asking them myself. Yes wedo!

Tune in next month for my fascinating (and non-boring) post on FCCregulations against Green Washing. ?