Friday, July 03, 2009

Organic labeling and its discontents

Washington Post story on the watering down of the USDA label. Money quote (quite literally):

Joe Smillie, a [National Organic Standards] board member, said he thinks that advocates for the most restrictive standards are unrealistic and are inhibiting the growth of organics.

"People are really hung up on regulations," said Smillie, who is also vice president of the certifying firm Quality Assurance International, which is involved in certifying 65 percent of organic products found on supermarket shelves. "I say, 'Let's find a way to bend that one, because it's not important.' . . . What are we selling? Are we selling health food? No. Consumers, they expect organic food to be growing in a greenhouse on Pluto. Hello? We live in a polluted world. It isn't pure. We are doing the best we can."

What consumers are likely to understand is a tough question, especially when the standards are complex. But "they think the food comes from a greenhouse on Pluto, therefore we can put plenty of synthetics in the food because they're misled anyway" has both normative and descriptive weaknesses, it seems to me.

1 comment:

Emma Castro said...

Thanks for zeroing in on that quote. I find that third-party certifications can be misleading, especially in the environmental arena. It is disturbing that a person responsible for such certifications is so dismissive of the consumers who rely on his decision making and is so willing to undermine organic standards. He seems to be focused on "expanding" organics as a sort of brand for its own sake as opposed to decreasing the toxicity in our food supply and farming practices.

Of course we live in a polluted world, but that's where the value of strong regulations can lie - for example, if 'certified organic' means (by regulation) that a food has been grown in soil without synthetic fertilizer, then the consumer knows the limits of that claim and will not be misled. (Since genetically modified foods can still be organic under the US regulations a lot of people think that is misleading)

At any rate, it sounds like Joe's discontent springs from frustration with a perceived lack of education among consumers, and from his own business mindset that undermines the purported goals of the board on which he sits. Perhaps he should resign and find an organization whose mission is better aligned with his own.