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What's a Label?

How to sift through claims made by organic products

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According to a study done by consumer research firm the Hartman Group, 69 percent of American adults are cheerleaders for the organic team, throwing organic foods in their baskets "at least occasionally." Sales of organic foods and beverages were projected by the Organic Trade Association to have reached nearly $23.6 billion in 2008. Heck, even Cheetos--the finger-staining epitome of junk food--jumped on board and came out with natural white cheddar puffs made with organic corn meal.

With all the money wrapped up in the organic industry, it's no surprise that organic foods have become ubiquitous outside of the eucalyptus-scented shelves of health food stores. Chains like Walmart, Albertsons/Supervalu and Target offer hundreds of organic products for their eco-hungry consumers. But with so many items now featuring earth-toned, biodegradable packaging and pictures of billowing wheat fields, determining which of these wholesome-looking foods are actually good for you and the environment takes much more than a cursory glance.

A good place to start when trying to overcome health-food-aisle hesitancy is by looking for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Certified Organic label. Though Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, the USDA didn't fully implement a national set of organic standards until 2002. According to those standards, a product that carries a "100 percent organic" label must contain only organically produced ingredients, excluding salt and water. Products made up of at least 95 percent organic ingredients can be stamped with the "organic" label, while items containing at least 70 percent organic ingredients can claim "made with organic ingredients." Though the USDA levies fines of up to $11,000 for misuse of the word organic, they only place limited restrictions on the claim "natural," and no restrictions on terms like "no drugs or growth hormones," "free range" or "sustainably harvested." And that's where most of the confusion comes in.

"I think that's a big problem in the market ... labels say, 'natural,' and it's not organic and doesn't have to be," explained Scott Perry, assistant manager of grocery at Boise Co-op. "Anybody can just throw 'natural' on their box or product that they want to sell. I think a lot of people just assume that is a green thing."

This misleading label trend became so widespread that it led Canadian environmental marketing agency TerraChoice to develop a list of the "six sins of greenwashing," which include things like "the sin of no proof" or "the sin of the hidden trade-off." Early this year, TerraChoice researchers visited a variety of chain stores and examined 2,219 products to determine if they made any greenwashing claims. Out of those products, they found that 98 percent fell victim to at least one sin. They even coined a seventh sin: "the worshipping of false labels," whereby products give the impression that they're endorsed by a third party when they're not. The USDA accredits third-party certifying agencies to make sure their standards are being met. A green light from certain agencies, like Oregon Tilth, carries more weight than others.

"I don't think there's enough funding as far as the USDA goes as to really be a full-on watch group," said Perry. "That's why you have companies like Oregon Tilth. You know when it says Oregon Tilth that you're getting a certain standard."

But beyond organic certification, there's still more to consider when shopping for green foods. Now that many large corporations have bought up big name organic brands, corporate sustainability and ethical practices have come into play. A chart created by Michigan State assistant professor Dr. Phil Howard, and published on the Cornucopia Institute's Web site, outlines corporate acquisitions of natural foods companies. Some recent acquisitions include: Kellog owns Kashi and Morningstar Farms, ConAgra owns Lightlife, M&M/Mars owns Seeds of Change, General Mills owns Cascadian Farms, and Kraft Foods owns Boca Foods and Back to Nature.

Albertsons shopper Mike Wendel said he generally buys organic for certain products like milk and carrots, but "If given the choice of having a national brand or an organic brand, I'll often take the organic one. Even if it costs a little bit more," he said.

For many, the assumption is that organic brands are often small-scale, independent companies. But when a corporation like Coca-Cola shells out $181 million to take over a brand like Odwalla, it's not charity. Organic and natural brands are in such high demand, and offer such equally high profit margins, that Albertsons/Supervalu recently launched their own organic and natural foods line--Wild Harvest Organics.

"We saw the need of the consumer. They had this growing interest in looking for a broad selection of fresh, healthy, nutritious foods," said Lilia Rodriguez, public affairs manager for Albertsons/Supervalu for the Intermountain West. "The idea that to eat organic and to eat healthy means you have to pay a lot of money or spend a lot of money, that's not true. That's why the company wanted to create this line."

Wild Harvest asserts that they only carry products "substantiated by U.S. Department of Agriculture audits and/or by USDA-certified organic certification agencies such as QAI, Oregon Tilth, CCOF and others." They also emphasize their line of more than 150 items contains "no artificial colors, preservatives or flavors, and a priority has been placed on partnering with suppliers and farmers who emphasize sustainable farming/manufacturing practices and conservation." With Wild Harvest brands priced around 15 percent lower than other organic products, customers like Wendel can better afford to buy things like organic milk.

But another corporate-owned organic milk label, Horizon, has recently come under fire for labeling their product organic while maintaining factory farm production methods. In a recent study published by the Cornucopia Institute examining 68 organic dairy brands, they found that 20 percent of companies scored a substandard rating. Horizon, owned by Dean Foods, has been criticized for contracting with facilities that milk 4,000 to 5,000 cows on large feedlots, like one in Paul, in Southeast Idaho. Though Boise Co-op no longer carries Horizon products, they do carry other corporate-owned products. Making these kinds of ethical assessments, in many cases, can be a murky task.

"You'll have certain companies, like say Seeds of Change, that get bought out, but it's supposed to be part of their contract that the same people stay there and the integrity of the business is still there," said Perry. "The integrity is still there, but they're owned by a corporation that does bad things, so it does get really confusing as far as what kind of choices you make. Where do you draw the line?"

Boise Co-op is currently in the process of creating an ethical buying guide to better determine what products the store will and will not carry. In the meantime, Joan Haynes, a longtime co-op shopper who now also shops at Albertsons on State and 17th streets because they expanded their natural foods section, uses a simple rule of thumb to weed through all the organic marketing hoopla.

"I basically look for words I can pronounce," said Haynes. "I would prefer organic, but I still have to stay within a budget."

For further information on brands, visit the Greener Choices Eco-labels center, greenerchoices.org/eco-labels. To see report cards for major corporations, visit betterworldshopper.com.

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