The Myth of “Natural Foods” and the Undermining of Organic Foods by Industry Giants
July 9, 2009
Health, Justice and Sustainability News from the Organic Consumers Association
By Ronnie Cummins
Natural Food Inc. Responds to OCA's Criticisms
In last week's Organic Bytes, OCA criticized Whole Foods Market (WFM) and United Natural Foods for undermining organics by promoting and selling mostly conventional products (greenwashed as "Natural"), instead of certified organic products. OCA and thousands of organic consumers asked WFM & UNFI to begin to put pressure on their so-called "Natural" product suppliers to sign contracts with accredited certifiers and make the transition to organic.
Unfortunately, instead of pressuring these "bottom line" companies to rethink dropping organic ingredients in favor of conventional ingredients, and to stop marketing conventional foods as if they were "as good as" or "nearly organic," WFM and UNFI have "put the squeeze" on a number of OCA's advertisers--costing our organization thousands of dollars in lost revenue. In spite of this blatant intimidation, OCA will not be silent. We will continue to expose the myth of so-called "Natural" foods and farming. We will continue educating ethical consumers, retailers, wholesalers, farmers, and food processors to put their money and their practices where their supposed values lie.
The Myth of Natural Food, Farming, and Products
Walk down the aisles of any Whole Foods Market (WFM) or browse the wholesale catalogue of industry giant United Natural Foods (UNFI) and look closely. What do you see? Row after row of mostly non-organic "natural" (i.e. conventional) foods and products. By marketing sleight of hand, these conventional foods, vitamins, private label "365" items, and personal care products become "natural" or "almost organic" in the Whole Foods setting. The overwhelming majority of WFM products, even their best-selling private label, "365" house brand, are not organic, but rather the products of chemical-intensive and energy-intensive farm and food production factories.
Test these so-called natural products in a lab and what will you find: pesticide residues, Genetically Modified Organisms, and a long list of problematic and/or carcinogenic synthetic chemicals and additives. Trace these products back to the farm or factory and what will you find: climate destabilizing chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and sewage sludge-not to mention exploited farm workers and workers in the food processing industry. Of course there are many products in WFM (and in UNFI's catalogue} that bear the label "USDA Organic." But the overwhelming majority of their products, even their best selling private label, "365," are not.
What does certified organic or "USDA Organic" mean? This means these products are certified 95-100% organic. Certified organic means the farmer or producer has undergone a regular inspection of its farm, facilities, ingredients, and practices by an independent Third Party certifier, accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The producer has followed strict NOP regulations and maintained detailed records. Synthetic pesticides, animal drugs, sewage sludge, GMOs, irradiation, and chemical fertilizers are prohibited. Farm animals, soil, and crops have been managed organically; food can only be processed with certain methods; only allowed ingredients can be used.
On the other hand, what does "natural" really mean, in terms of farming practices, ingredients, and its impact on the environment and climate? "Natural," in the majority of cases is meaningless, even though most consumers do not fully understand this. Natural, in other words, means conventional with a green veneer. Natural products are routinely produced using pesticides, chemical fertilizer, hormones, genetic engineering, and sewage sludge. Natural or conventional products-whether produce, dairy, or canned or frozen goods are typically produced on large industrial farms or in processing plants that are highly polluting, chemical-intensive and energy-intensive. "Natural," "all-natural," and "sustainable," products in most cases are neither backed up by rules and regulations, nor a Third Party certifier. Natural and sustainable are typically label claims that are neither policed nor monitored. (For an evaluation of eco-labels see the Consumers Union website http://www.eco-labels.org/).
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service provides loose, non-enforced guidelines for the use of the term "natural" on meat--basically the products cannot contain artificial flavors, coloring, or preservatives and cannot be more than minimally processed. On non-meat products, the term natural is typically pure propaganda. Companies (like Whole Foods Market or UNFI) are simply telling us what we want to hear, so that we pay an organic or premium price for a conventional product.
Perhaps this wouldn't matter that much if we were living in normal times, with a relatively healthy population, environment, and climate. Conventional products sold as natural or "nearly organic" would be a simple matter of chicanery or consumer fraud. But we are not living in normal times. Pressuring natural and conventional products and producers to make the transition to organic is a matter of life or death. And standing in the way of making this great transition are not only Fortune 500 food and beverage corporations, Monsanto, and corporate agribusiness, as we would expect, but the wholesale and retail giants in the organic and natural products sector, UNFI (United Natural Foods) and Whole Foods Market (WFM).
This subject will be continued in future blogs, newsletters and articles