Corporate Dilution of the Meaning of “Organic”

A few days ago there was an exceptionally interesting article in the NY Times on the corporatization of organic foods. See Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?, by Stephanie Strom. The story outlines the controversy over the composition of the US board charged with the task of determining just what can, and cannot, be put into a food labelled as “organic,” as well as over some of the specific decisions made by that board. In particular, there’s a worry by organic advocates that big business has come to dominate the board, and that its decisions are often out of line with the true spirit of the organic movement.

As Andrew Potter (no relation to the Mr. Potter mentioned below) points out, there’s a lot more going on here than a tussle over definitions.

What is interesting about the debate as it plays out in this article is that the question of whether these various “synthetics” should be allowed or not is entirely political. That is, Strom goes the entire article without ever confronting what should be the central issue, which is whether any of the controversial ingredients or inputs are healthy, or good for the environment, or contribute to the taste of the product. It’s clearly seen as irrelevant to the debate: the term “sustainability” is never used in the article, which is sort of like writing about the Occupy movement withouth once using the term “inequality”.

To see what Andrew means, check out this passage from the NYT article:

Ingredients like carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener with a somewhat controversial health record. Or synthetic inositol, which is manufactured using chemical processes.

Mr. [Michael J.] Potter [a seller of organic foods and an advocate of tougher standards] was allowed to voice his objections to carrageenan for three minutes before the group, the National Organic Standards Board.

“Someone said, ‘Thank you,’” Mr. Potter recalls.

And that was that.

Two days later, the board voted 10 to 5 to keep carrageenan on the growing list of nonorganic ingredients that can be used in products with the coveted “certified organic” label. To organic purists like Mr. Potter, it was just another sign that Big Food has co-opted — or perhaps corrupted — the organic food business.

What the article never makes clear is just what is wrong with carrageenan in food. (Carrageenan is an additive, derived from seaweed, that has been used in foods for hundreds of years.) There’s mention in the article of a “controversial health record” but that’s pretty vague. A quick search online suggests that there are some specific worries, but none of those worries seems, as far as I can tell, to imply that the stuff shouldn’t be considered non-organic or ineligible for inclusion in organic foods.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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