Do you prefer your foods to be “organic?” If so, you’re paying a higher price for this preference – and you may not be getting what you think you’re paying for.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides products with its organic seal. For a product to be certified organic, it’s required to meet specific standards:
- Organic crops cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge.
- Organic crops cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated.
- Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics.
- Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (hoofed animals, including cows) must have access to pasture.
- Animals cannot be cloned.
According to a Market Watch 2015 study, prices at Whole Foods, a national supermarket chain specializing in organic foods, were 12 -15% higher than other supermarkets in the study. If you believe organic foods are actually better for you and you’re willing to pay the higher price, that’s your decision. But what if those higher prices are based on false advertising?
Dr. Henry I. Miller, physician and molecular biologist at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, says the organic food industry is lying to you – and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is letting them get away with it.
He says the organic food industry is a $47 billion-a-year market and “. . . the FDA gives a complete pass to blatantly false and deceptive advertising claims.” As an example, he notes the Whole Foods website, which explicitly claims that organic foods are grown “without toxic or persistent pesticides.” Miller says, in fact, organic farmers rely on synthetic and natural pesticides to grow their crops, just as conventional farmers do, and organic products can contain numerous synthetic as well as natural chemicals.
According to UC Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues in 1990, “99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.”
Miller says pesticides are by definition toxic, and many organic pesticides pose significant environmental and human health risks. Copper sulfate is a widely used broad spectrum organic pesticide that persists in soil and is the most common residue found in organic foods. The European Union has determined that copper sulfate may cause cancer and intended to ban its use, but backed off because organic farmers don’t have any viable alternative.
Food marketers are experts in subtly misleading consumers. One method often used is the “absence claim.” Their advertising asserts a meaningless distinction between products in order to make theirs seem better. The FDA is generally good at monitoring such advertising and punishing abusers. They would never allow an orange juice producer to market their product as “fat free” since there is no fat in any orange juice. To claim an absence of a certain ingredient, there has to be a “standard of presence” in that product to begin with, and no such standard exists for orange juice.
But Miller points out the FDA’s inconsistency. Tropicana labels its orange juice “Non-GMO Project Verified” and Hunt’s labels its canned crushed tomatoes “Non-GMO” even though there are no GMO (genetically modified organism) oranges or tomatoes on the market.
Miller has researched the market and found the “Non-GMO Project” butterfly label is found on more than 55,000 organic and nonorganic products on supermarket shelves today – even though many have no GMO counterpart or couldn’t possibly contain GMOs. He says, “The clear purpose of these labels, as one peer-reviewed academic study found, is to ‘stigmatize food produced with conventional processes even when there is no scientific evidence that they cause harm, or even that it is compositionally any different.”
FDA guidelines are in fact stringent and explicit. These guidelines include statements such as this: “Another example of a statement in food labeling that may be false or misleading could be the statement ‘None of the ingredients in this food is genetically engineered’ on a food where some of the ingredients are incapable of being produced through genetic engineering (e.g., salt). They also state “GMO absence claims can also be false and misleading if they imply that a certain food is safer, more nutritious, or otherwise has different attributes than other comparable foods because the food was not genetically engineered.”
But Miller notes this is exactly what Non-GMO Project butterfly labels are all about. Its website describes certain foods as being at “high risk” of “GMO contamination.”
It is clear there is a disconnect between what the FDA says and what the FDA does. Consumers should be aware of this when reading food labels. They must ask themselves the question, “Is this organic food really worth the higher price I’m paying?”