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Food Safety and Processing Perspective

Terrence O’Keefe, WATT’s content director of agri-business, provides his perspective on developments affecting processing and food safety related issues in the poultry, egg and swine industries. Terrence has covered the poultry industry as an editor for over a decade and also brings his experience in plant management and live production to bear on today’s issues.

Are false health, food safety claims behind sales growth of organic foods?

April 24, 2014

The Organic Marketing Report recently released by Academics Review contains an analysis of more than 200 published academic, industry and government research reports into why consumers adopt organic product purchasing behaviors. The review concludes that:

“Research studies clearly show that food safety and health concerns are the primary drivers of consumer organic purchasing. Further, research reveals that other factors, such as sustainability, environmental claims and even organic certification, do not motivate general consumers to purchase organic products in the absence of health risk claims. Research by USDA, the organic industry and independent academic organizations also confirms that the use of the USDA Organic Seal is critical to conveying confidence in organic labeling claims, which the majority of consumers mistakenly believe to mean healthier and safer food products.”

Academics Review is a nonprofit association of academic professors, researchers, teachers and credentialed authors. This association has previously analyzed myths surrounding genetically modified organisms and has taken Dr. Mehmet Oz to task for information presented on his television show broadcasts.

The authors of the Organic Marketing Report said: “The review was supplemented with an assessment of more than 1,000 news reports, 500 website and social media account evaluations and reviews of hundreds of other marketing materials, advertisements, analyst presentations, speeches and advocacy reports generated between 1988 and 2014. Our findings were reviewed and endorsed by an international panel of independent agricultural science, food science, economic and legal experts from respected international institutions with extensive experience in academic food and agriculture research and publishing.”

This report has a number of interesting quotes about organic marketing, the claims made and about how the use of the USDA organic seal may appear to be an endorsement of other claims made on the product package. One example comes from former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman: “Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality (WebMD, 2000).”

Another interesting quote comes from Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Joann Smith at the first meeting of the National Organic Standard Board (NOSB), where she asked the board “to make sure it did not characterize organic food as safer than regular food, since there is no scientific proof to that effect.”

Despite these concerns raised by USDA officials at the onset of the NOSB process, the Academics Review’s report claims that USDA has failed in its oversight mission:

“Finally, the findings strongly suggest that this multi-decade public disinformation campaign has been conducted with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government-endorsed USDA Organic Seal in direct contradiction to U.S. government stated policy for use of said seal. USDA’s own research confirms that food safety and health risk concerns associated with conventional foods combined with consumer trust and confidence in the USDA Organic Seal are responsible for the significant growth and corresponding profits enjoyed by the organic industry since the seal’s launch in 2001.”

“This use of the USDA Organic Seal to convey superior food nutrition, safety or quality attributes of organic over conventional foods contradicts both the stated USDA intention for the National Organic Standards Program and the extensive body of published academic research which show conventional foods to be as safe and nutritious as higher-priced organic products.”

The Organic Food Marketing Report provided me with some answers to questions that I had myself about why sales in the organic food categories have continued to grow in spite of the higher prices, and what I see as limited additional benefits over conventionally raised food items. Marketers make false and misleading claims about products all the time. Competitors can challenge these claims in the courts and with appeals to the responsible government regulatory bodies. Is it time for processors of conventional foods to start challenging obviously false claims made by producers of organic products? For poultry companies, particularly those that market ready-to-cook products, I am not sure that a battle over whether meat or eggs from conventionally raised birds has the same or less Salmonella than products derived from organically raised birds is one anyone would want to fight.

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