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Looking Back on the Organic Market

Nearly 20 years ago, in 1990, Congress passed The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA).  The OFPA created an independent, public program that continues to maintain an advisory and regulatory role for all mainstream organic produce and products sold in the United States.  Unlike most other food production, typically overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, the OFPA designates the United States Department of Agriculture as the governing body for the organic foods program (National Organics Program, 2007).  This distinction is an important part of the debate over the National List, as it underscores the emphasis on the agricultural process (rather than health of safety) in the USDA's oversight of the organic label.

Since organic food legislation was first introduced in 1990, the food industry on the whole has grown increasingly centralized.  This centralization is decidedly visible in the organics industry, where large corporations have staked their claim in a growing and profitable market.  In the past several decades, as smaller natural or organic food producers have gained success, larger and more conventional food corporations have steadily purchased them, leaving the brand name in tact.  Muir Glen, an organic foods company (pictured to the right), is just one example of smaller brands that have been acquired by well known corporations.

The informational graphic below demonstrates how smaller organic producers and brands fit into the larger corporate ownership scheme – the image is all at once familiar and surprising.  In particular, it is significant to note the dates included beneath each of the acquisitions – nearly all occur after 1995.  Clearly, the organics trend is a new one for the food industry, meaning that corporate entrance into the market largely coincided with the establishment of government regulation of labeling (Howard, 2008).   As we look more closely at the National List, it becomes clear that larger corporations often have proportionately larger voices in the overall debate over organic regulations.

The following informational graphic, also created by Phil Howard, a researcher and assistant professor at Michigan State University, demonstrates the limited representation of large independent organic brands in the food industry.  The overall simplicity of the graphic stands in stark contrast to the one above because the producers largely stand alone -- they have fewer partnerships, fewer acquisistiosn of smaller producers, and the occasional cooperative ownership structure, such as Organic Valley, a well known dairy cooperative.

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Major Independent Organic Brands

On the one hand, the growth of the organic food market is largely a positive shift, meaning that consumers have far more opportunity to purchase competitively priced organic foods, whether fresh or packaged.  In spite of the dominance of certain corporations (i.e. Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Dean Foods), the growth of the industry signifies that far greater attention is being paid to environmentally conscientious farming and production techniques.  Though the personal health benefits of organic food are fiercely and frequently debated, the point stands that organic foods support greater environmental health, maintaining low pesticide use and good soil health. 

On the whole, organic foods retain fewer pesticides and are grown more sustainably than the so-called “conventional” foods that constitute over 95% of the products we see in grocery stores across the United States.  Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the Food and Drug Administration manages organic foods, the regulations are primarily agricultural rather than health or safety based.  This dynamic leaves an unusual role for the consumer, as the health of the product is not necessarily in question.  Rather, the organic label points to the the responsibility of the farming practices and the overall organic integrity of the ingredients (Martin, 2009).  The relative "health" is left to the interpretation of the consumer to avoid the perceived risks of pesticide exposure, antibiotic exposure, or other concerns with "conventional" produce or foods.

Because the organic food market hosts more expensive products, many producers are motivated to earn an organic label.  The qualifications for the USDA organic label have become a significant point of contention, often at the expense of the quality, safety, or truly “organic” nature of the ingredients.  The influence of food producers in the regulation of the organic market became particularly clear in 2005, with the expansion of the “National List.”  The National List is a list of accepted and prohibited ingredients put forth by the USDA.  The List is used as part of the organic labeling process to determine what farming, processing, and packaging processes are allowed under the USDA Organic umbrella. 

This website focuses on the conflict over the National List, a small but significant part of the larger debate around organic food production and labeling in the United States.  The website takes a look at all the pieces – the background to organic labels (the legislation, the labeling process, and the labels themselves), the National List (the details, the changes, the significance), and ultimately posits how the organic labeling system might be changed to be more inclusive of consumers and their perspective, more responsibly managed, and more legitimate in its labeling claims.     

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: Kellogg Manufacturing Plant

Image: Muir Glen organic product,
acquired by General Mills in 1996.

Image: Can of USDA Labeled Organic Soup.

Image: Brookford Farm, one of Organic Valley's 1625 farms.

Image: Amy's Kitchen product.

Image: Nature's Path (an independent brand) Toaster Pastries with the USDA Organic Label.


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