Unsubstantiated organic health claims


It´s been almost a year since USA Today broke the story of yogurt giant Dannon’s overzealous marketing of its product as a miracle health food. The makers of Activia and DanActive yogurt had to pay a whopping $21 million fine to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for claiming their product could relieve irregularity and prevent the common cold.

Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist and organic food activist, said the FTC’s response was “a shot across the bow that food marketers are going to have to stop using unsubstantiated health claims as marketing tools.”

And she’s absolutely right. But wait a second … Couldn’t the same be said about the holiest of holies in the food biz? What about all the claims made about organic food?

I’m big a supporter of the organic movement. I grew up on an organic grain farm and worked for five years as an organic inspector. And it saddens me to say that the certification of “organic” food is little more than a glorified marketing scheme. If you spend your hard-earned grocery budget on organic food, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that there’s no guarantee whatsoever that you’re getting anything that’s purer or more nutritious than regular food.

You see, the United States Department of Agriculture’s much-ballyhooed National Organic Program is administered under the rubric of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing service, not its Research, Inspection, Nutrition, Safety, Risk Management or Conservation services. Don’t consumers and the environment deserve a bit of scientific assurance?

Asked why we don’t go beyond mere marketing in the multi-billion dollar organic sector, Nestle’s response is to point to the added cost that something like organic field testing would entail. But field testing will cost just one-tenth of what the current system costs. So why not replace all the useless marketing paperwork with a simple annual lab test? Eliminate fraud and save a bundle in the process.

What? Too simple? Sometimes simple is the only way. Commenting further on the Dannon case, Nestle says, “Yogurt is just food. It’s not a miracle. No food is a superfood.”

Again, she’s right. And again, her comments underline the need to finally do something about all the phony-baloney organic food being sold at hefty premiums to trusting consumers. How phony-baloney, you ask?

A company called California Liquid Fertilizer was finally shut down back in 2008 after years of selling prohibited synthetic nitrogen to unsuspecting organic farmers in California. They disguised it as natural nitrogen simply by (wait for it) switching the label. Yup, it’s really that easy to game this system in the absence of field testing. And they only paid a measly $10,000 fine.

How exactly is paperwork supposed to prevent this sort of thing from happening again and again and again?

Didn’t Bernie Madoff prove that even the worst of fraudsters can accurately fill out government forms?

To his credit, Bill Clinton had anticipated the potential for such flagrant perfidy. He and the folks at the American Consumers Union wanted organic field testing back in ’97 and ’98 but, facing a stiff lobby from urban organic activists, field testing was effectively eliminated from the National Organic Program.

There’s hope, mind you. Miles V. McEvoy, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, says there will finally be field testing during his tenure. It’s more than a decade late, and he’s already three years into his job, but it’s worth supporting — with the following proviso:

Organic food must be tested in the field, not after harvest or any time later. Many highly toxic pesticides and fertilizers dissipate within days and become undetectable. If McEvoy doesn’t test organic farms in the field at least once a year, fraudsters, cheaters and charlatans will continue to game the system. And, I predict, white-collar criminals like Madoff will turn green with envy (pardon the pun) as they watch through the bars of their jail cells.

Mischa Popoff is an International Organic Inspectors Association-trained advanced organic farm and process inspector and is the author of Is it Organic? which you can preview at www.isitorganic.ca.

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