Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Letter From The Editor: Organics

"Methinks thou dost protest too much" – William Shakespeare


In the West, Kroger stores go by the circus-like name of King Soopers in the cities and City Markets in the mountain towns of the Rockies. The “Soopers” closest to me was recently expanded into a massive superstore. And it now has a huge USDA Organic department.

It’s just one way I know with my own lying eyes that organic food is doing great. If I had a piece of that, I’d be walking around with a little smile on my face for everybody. And I’d certainly not lose my smile and my optimistic outlook toward my product over one academic study.

But that appears to have happened. I fully understand there is no central command and control structure for the organic industry. But they should have come to me for advice because this is a bunch of people now acting against their own best interests.

Ever since Sept. 3rd, when the Stanford University School of Medicine came out with a study which found that the nutritional values of organic and non-organic foods are no different, the organic movement has been fighting like a man in quicksand — the more it struggles, the worse it gets.

I know, I know. We live in an era of instant response politics, smash-mouth journalism and the 10-minute news cycle. We have the In-Your-Face Book and the Twitter thing for people who fight with their thumbs.

Lost is any sense of judgment or strategy. It’s like watching those old gladiator movies where every fight scene with the big swords looks exactly like the last one. Every part of the body politic, including trade associations, non-government organizations and nonprofits has access to marvelous communications tools these days.

Unfortunately, there are more tools than brains. Had all these organic gladiators only come to me first. I would have explained that when you have sales going to $24.4 billion in 2011, up from 3.4 billion in 1997, you don’t want to do anything that would foul that up. I’d want to use a stronger word that “foul.”

So, my advice about what to do about the Stanford U study would come down to just two words: Shut up. Maybe four words: Shut up about it.

Instead, the organic industry and its followers are executing the usual playbook against Stanford, its researchers and evil corporations — some named and some not. All they’ve accomplished is spreading the Stanford study to a wider and wider audience.

Not smart.

Nothing needed to be defended and no offense was required. The best thing for the organic industry is the status quo because its been a great growth strategy. Why knock over the organic apple cart? It’s like rioting in your own neighborhood.

We of the great unwashed public like having choices. Organic foods give us the choice to avoid pesticides or fertilizers and/or antibiotics and grow hormones. This also works out really well for the organic industry. Most evil corporations do not have a growth rate anything like the one being experienced in organics. My advice is don’t mess it up.

But they did not ask for my advice, and instead they’ve managed to keep the Stanford study in the news for the past two weeks with no end in sight. For example:

– Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones, says the Stanford study sold organics short by not discussing five other concerns he has about pesticides.

– Lynn Pepples in Huffington Post went through a list of everything that might stick to discredit the Stanford study. To her credit, she knocked down some of the ones most obviously made up (like the study was funded by Cargill).

– Groups like the Cornucopia Institute have been reacting like it was a five-alarm fire. Their message seems to be that eating non-organic fruits and vegetables is on par with smoking cigarettes.

These are but a handful of examples in a case study of how a 24-hour story can get stretched out to a month. We see this more and more. It’s like people have forgotten or never knew that the quickest way to kill a story you don’t like is silence.

“The biggest surprise with the news that organic food was no healthier or safer than conventional was how many people were surprised,” our colleague Greg Johnson, editor of The Packer, opined.

Just as organic and conventional foods both bear an equal burden of food safety, we never expected much difference in nutritional values. Consumers pay the big bucks for organics because they are concerned about their exposure to pesticides or fertilizer in produce or they think there is a risk from antibiotics or grown hormones in meat.

All the organic industry should have said is that it remains proud of its produce and happy to give consumers a choice. Then it should have — you guessed it — shut up. It’s riding the up escalator with no end yet in sight.

© Food Safety News
  • pawpaw

    Thanks, Dan.
    Have grown food organically, for our six kids, for 20+ years. Became USDA Certified Organic a year ago. To meet market demand for organic seed production, and to meet customer demand at our farmers market.
    Have been suppressing the urge to defend my organic produce with customers seeking same. They are still buying, and not asking me to defend it. One (yes only 1) customer has brought the issue up. So have been biting my tongue on slights real or imagined.
    So I’ll get over it and keep serving my customers.
    Thanks for the advice.

  • Ted

    Well said Dan. Spot on.
    A major problem for organic snake oil salesmen is how they must market their fundamentally indistinguishable product. Everything for them hinges on creating and sustaining a popular distrust of the ordinary, an irrational fear of the dark. They must, as they understand it, market organic by de-marketing perfectly safe, abundant affordable ordinary food.
    So then, the relentless hyperbolic bashing of good honest food and food producers everywhere to frighten self absorbed grocery shoppers into paying a premium for a good old fashioned exorcism at the cash register. But last week the usually dark, grim priest suddenly showed up in casual street clothes engaging in pleasant small talk. Now, we all know anyone falling out of scripted mythical character or straying from the official terror-inducing talking points threatens to blow the organic con for everyone. Gasp! Little wonder the panicked blaming and apologizing.
    Isn’t part of the frantic squawking and flapping by organic worshipers familiar to most of us from our childhood. Remember that crestfallen sensation when those nasty boogiemen hiding under your bed turned out to be nothing, nothing at all?
    And the glow of your Mickey Mouse nite light did not endow you with superhuman powers after all – yet another test flight from the head of the stairs had ended in a painful and embarrassing crash landing. And there was the time you set out with a vengeance to save the planet, only to wreck your bike and have to get 8 stitches and sit through another boring lecture about paying attention to reality.
    Damn, all that was hard on a young caped crusader’s ego so we took it out on the cat…or our stupid little sister (who still believed in hobgoblins and white knights on charging steeds — and still does, thankfully for the burgeoning organic snake oil business). Turns out there are some imaginary caped crusaders who never grew up — they have become organic worshipers, still rescuing the planet one overpriced grocery purchase at a time. Bully for them.
    Thank you Dan for daring to speak truth to fanaticism. You and I know Spiderman wasn’t real and other people need to be reminded of it from time to time. No doubt you will be generously repaid with hate mail from the True Believers. A few of us, however, think you’re OK. One of the straight shooters who wears a white hat. Happy trails, pardner.

  • Kind of a jejune attitude about the whole discussion.
    There’s nothing wrong, one way or another, with having this study under discussion for a longer period of time. When the study was released, the media blitzed the airwaves with it. There’s nothing harmful about following up the typical media hysteria with a longer, more thoughtful look. Not only is doing so not wrong, it is essential.
    My first reaction to the study was to wonder if there wasn’t financial backing from Monsanto et al. After all, you’ve seen in comments to this publication how much Big Ag is willing to spend to spread disinformation.
    But the study creators assured us the funding was independent and yes, that was enough for me. Stanford is not some lightweight college, and is aware of the necessity of transparency. I trust it and its various departments–especially with a paper being posted to a peer reviewed journal.
    The study was flawed, though, and the conclusions by the study creators, overblown. More importantly, the reporting by the professional media was egregiously lacking in perspective. To not say anything is to be complicit in spreading the misinformation resulting from inherently irresponsible media reporting.
    Now, new stories have taken the place of the study, including the “pink slime” lawsuit, and the ever present political discussions. But at some future time, when people are looking up information about organics and health benefits, if they find this study, they’ll also discover the learned criticism of it.
    That’s something today’s media, and thankfully big agribusiness, both don’t understand: time is collapsed on the web.

  • Mary

    Heh. Good post. And I think you are right.
    Another thing their flailing did was to illustrate that they have no grasp of how science works. Every pushback post was about the things that weren’t in there. You don’t get to decide which things go in to a paper unless you are doing the research project. If you want to cover other stuff, get your own damn project and write a paper.
    The other thing that was funny was that they all backed away from their nutrition claims, saying–oh, we never said that it was more nutritious. Well, honey, this is the internet. We have the evidence. Again, “shut up” would have been a much wiser strategy there.
    The calls for retraction by conspiracy theorists and cranks was the topper. Way to demonstration complete disconnection with reality. But hilarious.

  • Grace Geshuny

    Dead on – thanks. Nonetheless, think a direct response to the MSM outlets with essentially your message was warranted. This one in the Huff Post did a good job: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-jonny-bowden/the-organic-food-lie_b_1866043.html?goback=.gde_90010_member_162884578&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

  • And, yet again, I rest my case on the deliberate spreading of misinformation.

  • Vene

    Organic food was never meant to be more nutritious, that was not its goal, why is this such a big deal? I thought the movement was about being ecologically sustainable by doing away with antibiotics and severely restricting the usage of pesticides. Neither of these factors are going to influence what a crop picks up from the soil.

  • DJ

    I eat mostly organic foods to avoid adulterated GMOs, excessive pesticides, herbicides, chemicals, artificial additives, foods grown in sewage sludge and a bunch of other stuff that is not good for me. I feel that organic foods are safer and healthier for me and my family. And it is nobody elses business what I eat. It is my choice.

  • As am organic purveyor sure we were a little confused when the Stanford study came out, as we had even been misinformed about the health benefits and as such passed this false information on to our clients. We have since retracted this misguided and false perception of organic benefits with our clients.
    Now that we are aware of the study at Stanford and know that in fact there is no real difference in organics we will simply offer the choice to our clients, we will not push as hard for clients to choose organic products.

  • Cindy

    So true. The more amazing since the concept has been understood for so long.
    “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do” == attributed to Ben Franklin
    “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” == attributed variously to Abe Lincoln and Mark Twain
    Maybe these should be written into the USDA’s NOP, kinda like the National List?

  • Ray Webb

    There are 2 ways to see the study: when you have sales going to $24.4 billion in 2011, up from 3.4 billion in 1997. The fact is, that the conventional grower will have to do something to stop the success of organics. They have to find some “Scientists” to write up some “Scientifics”. It was the same with butter and margarine years ago.
    Or have these “Scientists” bought organic stuff in the stores, labeled as organic and grown commercially? How would they know? There wasn’t a traceback record or code of prove otherwise on the product. Just a label, if that!

  • Pedro Pompeyo Osores Morante

    Hello my friend must be honest
    who are taking the money of the farmers?the chemicals companies
    Who needs the farmers utilizing agrochemicals?the chemicals companies
    Who sell agrochemicals with seed?the chemicalls companie

  • Serena

    Monsanto and Big Ag are telling lies. Dirty lies to keep poisoning all of us. But stupid sheeple think science studies make everything OK when children are killed by toxic food. We know the real truth about organic it is cleansing. Big Ag gets richer making us all sicker. Buy organic for HEALTH.

  • Joel

    Hey how we go Dan!
    Here’s to RESURRECTING an issue that has gone past with a lead editorial saying this issue should go gently into that good night and thereby bring said issue front and center once again!
    Well at least Ted -the-Troll likes it — even if he got the message all wrong. Oh well — more disinformation to fan the flames — and at least you can point to the spurred on increased number of comments to prove that people actually do read these editorials….

  • keene observer

    Proselytizing organophiles do have their marketing work cut out for them, spinning and embellishing the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse. Even this $24.4 billion in sales must be meticulously distracted and shielded away from its correct context. Ah, the work of a snake oil salesman is never done, never. After all, there’s a sucker born every minute and even though fool and her grocery money are easily parted you have to stay in her face 24/7 to accomplish it.
    So, organic is a raging national success story? Sure, $24.4 billion seems like a lot. Since there are about 300 million Americans, organic purchases work out to about $81 per person per year (22 cents per day, about $1.56 per week) or slightly less than $350 per year for a family of four.
    Not exactly a big budget item considering most families spend that much in less than 4 months on cable TV. Hell, a buck-fifty per week is like one solitary organic apple (organic worms at no extra charge), maybe not even that much, overpriced as organic crap always is.
    Certainly “Big Ag” is not concerned about chump change like that. They wouldn’t even notice if it weren’t for all the bashing lies and negative press raving organoenvirowhackos relentlessly hurl at them to try to make their own overpriced organic schlock look better by comparison. All invalidated, of course, by the Stanford study (like so many others) that confirms there is no difference between ordinary food and organic….except price and snob appeal.
    And I guess if I had invested 40 years of my life attempting to reinvent the wooden wheel with so little to show for all the time and money wasted, if all I had after all that dissipation was blind trust to fall back on, well, I would be pretty desperate and defensive too.
    Seriously, I would gladly pay you $81 per year if you could make these cheesy organic fear merchants shut the hell up and go the hell away. That would unquestionably be the best value among the various subscriptions I enjoy.

  • I’m a big fan of Food Safety News, but disagree strongly with this editorial. The Stanford study made many people and businesses say, “Whew, no need to go to the expense or trouble to get organic.” (See the comments from Classy Catering Creations above.)
    Please see my Huffington Post piece for details and an illustration that shows how Cargill and the Gates Foundation, which invests heavily in Monsanto and other Fast, Big Food enterprises, are related to the study.
    Did Cargill write a check for the study? Evidently not. Does Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute get major funding and active involvement from Cargill and the Gates Foundation? Yes, as shown by their 2011 annual report. (Search for Cargill in the pdf to find the statements.)
    Marion Nestle documented the influence of money on food policy in her book Food Politics. I worked in politics before starting the Cook for Good project, so the Stanford study also reminded me of strategies described by David Brock in The Republican Noise Machine.
    It’s certainly possible that scientists can operate perfectly objectively and publish untainted reports even if their results damage the economic interests of the major sponsors of their institutes. But it’s at least worth considering the possibility that they were influenced. As Thomas B. Esdall writes in the New York Times today on Poverty as Robbery:
    “This dependence on moneyed interests effectively precludes exploitation as a theme for either major party to develop. These sources of campaign cash would dry up if they became the target of policies or positions they found threatening.”
    The marks of this influence can be seen directly in the Stanford study. Consider:
    * The difference between the relatively pro-organic, peer-reviewed article hidden behind a pay wall and the don’t-be-a-chump press coverage in the Stanford press release, on the FSI site, and in media interviews.
    * The misrepresentation of studies considered in the meta-study, such as the apple study I mention.
    * Many other scientific twists and turns, discussed by Charles Benbrook, former Executive Director, Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences, here: http://www.tfrec.wsu.edu/pdfs/P2566.pdf
    Benbrook writes, “The findings of this study are ripe for overstatement and misinterpretation. From the study’s summary and press materials, it is easy to see why many stories will start with a clear and unequivocal statement like — ‘New Study Undermines Health Benefit of Organic Food.'”
    This study struck a well-aimed blow at a method of farming that provides food with less toxins and fierce bacteria, protects farmers, fights drought, and slows global warming. It’s well worth fighting back.

  • Organic food is a market segment not a panacea. The Stanford study just verified what everyone already knew: the pesticide residue levels on conventional produce are not an issue and there is no magic bullet in organic. If you believe that pesticides are harmful to the environment and workers (and they certainly are) and want to pay more for your food by all means do so. Just drop the evangelical posturing and conspiracy theories.

  • Jon

    “Spleen-venting Observer gets it wrong once again. The whole reason these well-financed screeds against organic and local are appearing from a host of Agribusiness-supported quarters is to try and sow doubt and disinformation about organics to deflect the mounting scrutiny of our industrialized food system.
    The industrial food model relies on mass production and large-scale distribute schemes to achieve their so-called “economy of scale” — designed to put smaller scale producers out of business (while externalizing their toxic costs to our health and the environment) — they have to work with thin profit margins that totally depend on maintaining mass sales to make this predatory business model work.
    What’s stirring them up into an offensive defensive mode is that organic and local are making significant inroads into their market advantage — and they’re feeling the pain.
    Since agriculture policy is in the pocket of these Big Food special interests the only way consumers are going to be able to reclaim their food supply and turn these toxic production schemes around is to keep on voting with their food dollars for the beneficial alternatives that thankfully are becoming more and more available.

  • Grimm

    Organic food superstition is little more than Harry Potter fantasy for people plenty old enough to know better. Even paid organic ninjas have floundered but keep fighting the quicksand, Dumbledore regimental organofootsoldiers! Never say die.