Silk’s Non-Organic Soymilk

Here’s an interesting piece about the delicate matter of marketing products at the (apparently) fragile intersection of terms like “organic” and “natural” and “GM-free.”

By Melanie Warner, for Bnet: How Silk Soymilk’s Cost-Cutting Dis of Organic Backfired

Back in early 2009, Silk, the leading brand of soymilk, quietly stopped using certified organic soybeans and removed the word ‘organic’ from its labels in favor of the more malleable term ‘natural’. For a long time, nobody noticed.

After swapping out the key ingredient in its product, Silk didn’t bother to alter its packaging (except to yank the word organic) or the SKU number, giving some customers the impression that the move was deceptive. … Shunning organic also diluted the value of Silk’s brand, which was built upon the idea of health and wholesomeness….

Was it unethical of Silk to stop using organic soy without being more up-front about the change? Well, to begin, those who think that only organic agriculture is ethical will believe that the change itself is unethical, nevermind the way the change was(n’t) advertised. But assuming that use of non-organic soy is at least permissible, how should Silk have handled the transition? It’s pretty hard to imagine labels screaming “Now With Non-Organic Soy!” But as Melanie Warner’s article implies, Silk could have signalled the change more subtly by, say, redesigning their package. Of course, it’s not clear that such a change would have resulted in consumers also noticing the change to non-organic soy.

FYI, as I write this, I happen to have sitting on the kitchen counter a container of Silk Original Light Fortified Soy Beverage (I don’t drink it, but another member of my household does). No mention of organic ingredients. Prior to reading Warner’s article, I had already been amused (and had my curiosity aroused) by the claim on the side of the carton that “Silk Light begins with natural soy, grown without genetic engineering right here in North America.” Why would I find that significant? Well, first, it is incredibly rare to find products in a major Canadian grocery store proclaiming themselves to be GM-free. In fact, this is the first time I’ve seen it. I even emailed the grocery chain (Metro) to find out if they have a policy about that. They do not. Second, I’m surprised to see a food producer able to claim (presumably truthfully) that its key ingredient is GM-free without it also being organic. For many purposes (including for many consumer purposes) the two often go hand-in-hand.

Update (Sept. 15, 2010)…
I just found out that this issue does not apply equally across boarders. I’m currently looking at a carton of Original Silk Fortified Soy Beverage — and it is made with organic soybeans. So, here in Canada, the complaint discussed above just doesn’t apply, apparently.

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.
This entry was posted in ethics, genetic modification, labeling, organic. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Silk’s Non-Organic Soymilk

  1. Anastasia says:

    It’s up to the consumer to look at the package. The whole reason why the organic label exists is so people who want to buy organic can easily identify organic products. I don’t think Silk did anything dishonest.

    I avoid any products that say non-GMO or similar because I don’t want to financially support fearmongering. We should also think about what a non-GMO label actually means when we find it on a non-organic product.

    We can expect that much conventional soy is Roundup Ready. The RR trait encourages farmers to choose the relatively benign glyphosate for weed control instead of much more harmful alternatives. Non-GMO conventional farms have no option but to use those more harmful herbicides unless they want to see their yields decrease due to weed pressure. With Silk, the consumer ends up paying more for a label that requires special handling of the crop but gets no environmental benefit.

    I’ll keep buying 8th Continent soymilk, with it’s presumably smaller environmental footprint, at least until they start to use a non-GMO label.

    • Anastasia:

      I mostly agree. But (just to play devil’s advocate, here) I think that someone could make a convincing argument that there is something like a bait-and-switch going on here. Silk developed a loyal following of customers who bought the product because of a certain set of characteristics. Likely (like most of us) they stopped reading the label once they became committed customers. Then, Silk quietly made a change in a characteristic their customers cared about.


      • Kelsea Button says:

        Hi Chris,

        Something about that Anastasia comment strikes me as very fishy. If you click on her name and read her blog, and what she is all about (genetic engineering, selective breeding, dispelling myths about GMO’s) then why, I ask, does she support a soy milk company which supposedly uses (*mostly) non-gmo seeds?

        Anyway, enough about that. I’m wondering, if a soy milk beverage says it is organic does that automatically mean it is from non-gm seeds?


  2. Pingback: Silk's Non-Organic Soymilk (via The Food Ethics Blog) « Ishtarmuz's Blog

  3. Anastasia says:

    Awesome. Kelsea, instead of addressing any questions to me, you just make an announcement that something about my comment is “fishy”. That’s really professional of you. I suppose I should just be thankful that you haven’t insulted me outright or made up lies about me, since that’s what everyone else seems to love to do lately.

    8th Continent doesn’t have a non-GMO label. There are no logical or ethical inconsistencies in my supporting this company. I do not support non-GMO labels for the reasons I stated above.

    Just in case Dr. MacDonald isn’t familiar with US organic regulations, the answer is yes, but it’s slightly more complicated. Organic labeled foods can not use genetically engineered seed, but that’s not the same thing as saying that no genetically engineered material is allowed. This is a protection for farmers against cross pollination. As long as the farmer takes reasonable precaution to avoid cross pollination by sexually compatible genetically engineered crops, he or she can still market their produce as organic as long as it was otherwise produced with methods allowable in organic farming.

    For more clarification, see the section “Don’t panic, it’s organic” in my post Sugar beet biology.

  4. Anastasia, thanks for commenting. I had planned on posting to ask Kelsea to either make a clear statement of her worry or to retract it, but you beat me to it by a few minutes.


  5. feloneous cat says:

    Non-GMO does not mean organic. Never did. It merely means that the organism (in this case the soybean) was not modified.

    The problem with organic farming is that it can require almost the same amount of energy to produce the same amount of food. That is the whole reason behind pesticides and herbicides – it wasn’t to make food dangerous, it was to reduce costs (and with diesel nearing $4.00 in my state, energy is a SIGNIFICANT cost). Worse, if you have to depend on soy to fix nitrogen in your soil or manure from those hormone injected bovines, you really are just waving your hands and PRETENDING it is organic.

    The reality is that it is nearly impossible to get away from GMO foods. Whether it is through accidental contamination at the lots or accidental contamination in the fields. Personally, I don’t like it, but as a rancher (who grows non-GMO hay – not that I know of GMO hay) I do understand the issues.

    Finally, I could even argue that everything from grains to fruit are not natural, being that the end product was the result of man breeding for hardier, more abundant species. The difference between playing with genetics at the macro level and the micro level becomes a tricky one indeed.

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