Sunday, July 09, 2006

Consumer Culture: Organic Buyer Beware

Things are not always what they seem, even when they're labeled "organic."

This isn't a new issue. But I read yesterday that people are boycotting Horizon Organic, the popular, easy-to-find organic brand, and the topic flared in my brain. Owned by corporate giant Dean Foods, (which also owns Silk), Horizon is under criticism for a number of alleged offenses, including not allowing their cows to graze freely in open pastures like they're supposed to (they use giant feedlots just like conventional dairy farms), and importing cows from conventional farms that have been subjected to hormone and antibiotic treatments and fed non-organic (read: slaughterhouse waste and GMO grains) feed. Hmmm.

It's bad enough that many of us have for years shelled out twice as much for the butter and milk sporting the cute, reassuring flying cow logo thinking we're getting the real deal when what we've maybe been getting instead is an expensive lie. But what is even more troubling is that these offenses are still permissible under the USDA's organics standards. From what I've gathered reading about this case, according to the USDA cows need only have *access to* pasture, but there's nothing saying they need to actually spend time roaming the free range. I can only imagine the number of other such loopholes that exist in the USDA oganic certification guidelines in order to appease the huge agribusiness lobby. (Click here for the USDA's organic program website, which I will need to parse through at a later date.)

Bottom line, and it's no big shock: we cannot trust the USDA Certified Organic label or any product that bears it. Instead, if we really want to buy organic food that is what we think it's supposed to be -- free from chemicals, produced with little damage to the planet, etc. -- we need to do our research. In other words, we need to be mindful.

A couple months ago I went through my fridge and pantry and wrote down the names of all the companies who made the organic food I'd bought. Then I sat down at the computer and read about all those companies. Only a slim handful were the home-grown, small-production, salt-of-the-earth types of companies I want to support. The rest were sub-companies of huge mega companies that I want nothing to do with.

I don't recall all the results of my pantry audit, but I'll see if I can dig them up to share with you. (I do recall a correlation between super-glossy, saturated color packaging and major multinational corporations -- think Cascadian Farms, which is owned by General Mills, and yes, Horizon.) In the meantime, if you'd like to read more about this case with Horizon, see this article from LOHAS. Also check out the Organic Consumers Association's website on protecting organic standards.

And of course if you want to really know where your food comes from, ask the farmer at a farmer's market, or ask at a food store that knows exactly where their goods come from like Pumpkin's Organic Market here in the South Slope. In an age when packaging is prioritized over contents and our government seem more interested in helping fat cats make money than in protecting its citizens, it's really up to us to decide what is true and what we want to support with our hard earned dollar votes.

1 comment:

shawn said...

This is disturbing... Nowadays I only drink Ronnybrook milk, from my local farmer's market. It's not labeled organic, but it tastes (damn) good and it's from a local farm.

The other organic milk brand I've tried is Organic Valley (I think), and it lasts for a (disturbingly) long time in my fridge. Not to mention it doesn't taste very good.

How about that yogurt brand... Stonyfield? They seem to be a group of nice folks.