The organic list of shame

by Ari LeVaux

Some food companies have found a way to cast their processed foods as organic without going through the inconvenience of using certified organic ingredients in their products. By incorporating “organic” into their names, some companies have been able to display the magic word on the packaging of food products that are not in fact certified organic.

This deception has recently been called out by The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group that has filed complaints with the National Organic Standards Board and Federal Trade Commission.

The alleged infractions run the spectrum from blatant misrepresentation, in the case of Oskri Organics, to stretching the limits of evolving definitions of organic, in the case of a surprise entry in Cornucopia’s list of shame: the much-loved Newman’s Own Organics.

Some of Oskri Organics’ products contain no certified organic ingredients at all. Nonetheless, the company has been able to display the money word front and center on its packaging, simply because it’s part of the company’s name.

Organic Bistro sells frozen entrees made with organic vegetables, grains and oils, but many of the meals also include non-organic chicken and turkey. A glance at the ingredient list would convince most people that Organic Bistro meals are cleaner and probably healthier than most other frozen food entrées out there. But of all the ingredients, meat is arguably the most important in terms of human and environmental health. Not coincidentally, meat would also account for the lion’s share of the cost of using organic ingredients.

The letter and spirit of organic law say the only permissible reason for using non-organic ingredients in certified organic processed food is if that ingredient is not available in certified organic form.

“There is certainly no shortage of organic chicken or organic turkey,” says Cornucopia’s Mark Kastel. “By using conventional ingredients to cut costs, yet displaying the word ‘organic’ so prominently in their packages, Organic

Bistro is unfairly competing with truly organic companies that commit to sourcing organic meat.” It’s also unfair to consumers who see the name Organic Bistro and assume the chicken dinner in the box is organic.

One of the driving forces behind the creation of USDA’s National Organic Program was the economic interest of corporate food companies that wanted to cash in on the tremendous consumer demand for organic food. These corporations wanted to know what they had to do in order to sell their food as organic. After a lengthy period of wrangling over the rules, USDA organic seals were finally placed on the products that earned organic certification.

Since those lines were drawn, they’ve been vigorously contested. Much of the friction has been over corporate attempts to soften the laws and make it cheaper to certify products as organic. But end-runs around certification standards via strategic company names are a dangerous precedent that until now has slipped through the regulatory cracks.

Newman’s Own Inc., the parent company of Newman’s Own Organics, has an enigmatic slogan plastered at the top center of its web page. It reads: “Shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good.”

I was going to offer a free T-shirt to whoever could parse the meaning of this slogan, but a company spokesperson got back to me and explained that it refers to exploiting the famous Newman name to sell product for money that’s then given to charity – amounting to more than $285 million since 1982.

According to Cornucopia, Newman’s Own Organics – now a separate company – seems to be shamelessly exploiting the word “organic” to help sell products that are not, in fact, certified organic.

Cornucopia’s beef with Newman’s Own Organics boils down to the difference between two types of certifications, both of which are bestowed by USDA-accredited organic inspectors. The “Certified Organic” label means a processed food contains at least 95 percent certified organic ingredi

ents, with the remaining percentage being unavailable in organic form. The “Made with Organic Ingredients” label means at least 70 percent of the ingredients are certified organic, with no stipulation that the non-organic ingredients be unavailable in organic form. While the difference between 70 percent and 95 percent isn’t earth-shattering, it’s significant that a cheaper, non-organic percentage can be presented, by semantic sleight of hand, as the real thing. “Made with Organic Ingredients” is a weak alternative that hangs onto the organic name like a parasite.

The Newman’s Own Organics product line includes both “Certified Organic” products and those “Made with Organic Ingredients.” Cornucopia believes the company should either switch to a 95 percent-plus certified organic product line, or change its name.

“(The regulations) specify that 70 percent organic products cannot ‘represent’ themselves as organic. If Newman’s Own Organics cannot legally use the term ‘organic’ or represent its 70 percent organic products as organic, we do not believe they should be able to use the ‘Newman’s Own Organics’ company name on the front packaging,” explained Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Policy Analyst with Cornucopia, via e-mail.

“Country Choice Organics has a ginger cookie, and they use organic ginger. The Newman’s Own Organics Ginger-O cookie is similar, but uses non-organic ginger. If they’re going to represent themselves as organic by selling Ginger-O’s under the Newman’s Own Organics brand and compete with companies that actually use organic ginger in organic ginger cookies, we believe they should use organic ginger.”

According to Vallaeys, USDA’s National Organic Program is evaluating the use of “organic” in company names for “made with” products and will issue guidance in due course. And, she says, the NOP is also investigating some Newman’s Own Organics advertising practices that appear to go beyond shameless exploitation of a legal gray area.

In one particularly egregious example, a product description on the web site waxes: “When organic peanut butter meets organic chocolate, the results are Newman’s Own Organics Peanut Butter Cups.”

But the ingredients list shows they contain non-organic peanut butter and non-organic flour.

Now that’s getting a little shameless. •