business news in context, analysis with attitude

We reported yesterday about a Los Angeles Times story saying that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is “considering a list of 38 nonorganic ingredients that will be permitted in organic foods. Because of the broad uses of these ingredients — as colorings and flavorings, for example — almost any type of manufactured organic food could be affected, including cereal, sausage, bread and beer.

“Organic food advocates have fought to block approval of some or all of the proposed ingredients, saying consumers would be misled.”

One of the arguments for the change is that there simply isn’t a big enough supply of organic ingredients, and therefore manufacturers trying to fill a need ought to be cut some slack.

Our response: Baloney.

And, we wrote:

If there is a shortage of legitimately organic products because of a shortage of organic ingredients, c’est la vie. It may mean a slowdown in organic category growth, but you don’t relax the rules, because inevitably this will mean that the rules don’t mean anything, that consumers will have been fooled into believing in something that may not exist, and that eventually the category could dry up because it will have been diluted into irrelevance.

There may be some short-term benefit to companies’ bottom lines, but the long-term impact can only be negative.

“Organic” should mean “organic.” Pure and simple.

Anything else is a lie and an abuse not just of consumer trust, but also of the truth.

MNB user Audrey Seiter wrote:

I couldn't agree more strongly with your opinion!

Is there anything for consumers, that are just becoming aware of the "38 non-organic ingredient inclusion", to do to stop this?

Letters, emails and phone calls to the USDA might help, but we suspect that the only long-term approach is to send an unambiguous message to your elected representatives that you expect them to step in…or they’ll lose their jobs.

Another MNB user wrote:

Agree wholeheartedly with your comments.

The food industry has manipulated food contents...just as the tobacco industry manipulated tobacco products in making them addictive.

Let's keep something simple, please!

This email illustrates the level to which trust is being abused, even if we disagree with the comparison to the tobacco industry.

After all, tobacco executives deliberately manipulated lethal products to addict people…which is a little different.

MNB user Al Kober wrote:

The same thing will happen with the term "Organic" that has happen with the world "Natural" There will have to be different definitions for " Processed Organic" as well as "Raised Organic" and maybe a few more categories, like "Almost All Organic" or "Some of this is Organic" ,or "There maybe some Organic materials in this product.”

It is all feel good stuff for many people anyway, so what ever wording make the customer feel good will work, for most all but the real organic enthusiast.

We’re not sure we’d agree with the implication that this is more about words than reality.

Another MNB user wrote:

Instead of a fixation on absolute purity, why not allow brands to quantify how much "holier than thou" they are--e.g., "98% Organic," "87% Organic," "72% Organic," etc.? That way, each and every consumer could decide on each and every purchase where to draw the line?

We see your point in theory…but that’s not what is being sought here. There are forces at work that want to blur the lines, not thicken them.

MNB user Amy Buttery wrote:

Organic does cost way too much (for my family) now, but the supply-demand problem at the heart of it will never be solved with a short-term fix that allows the market to be flooded with “kinda-sorta” organic stuff that will steal market share from all those who are genuinely organic and are slowly building a consumer base that’s consistent with their beliefs. These folks aren’t trying to artificially create high-demand to ensure a high price, they are doing what they must to stay in business.

Let more (U.S.) suppliers and farmers learn that there’s a serious market for organic feed and so on, and they should step up and supply it. The pressure of demand can’t work if little “leaks” in the system don’t let the pressure build. I’m all for much more, and more affordable, organic, but I hate the idea of label dishonesty and degradation.

In all fairness, it sounds like there is a shorter list of non-organic ingredients that current organic producers could live with, and that the disappointment came from the size of the list, not the concept itself. If that short-list of ingredients (for which there’s widespread acceptance that their presence would not weaken the label and would bring lots more valuable “organic”-labeled products to the consumer), I’m probably okay with that. It just sounds like another case of large corporations lobbying their way into labels they don’t deserve, only to reap the substantial profits to be had by going organic...

MNB user Jackie Lembke wrote:

I don't buy organic and I think allowing non-organic ingredients in an organically labeled product is misleading. It will erode whatever consumer confidence is out there for organic products, making them suspect. If I choose to buy organic and am paying the price for that choice I want to be confident that the product is organic, otherwise why bother.

And MNB user Ted File wrote:

Again, you are right on re: the organic rules and regs. Hope the USDA gets a copy of MNB and reads it prior to making a drastic mistake.

From your lips…

This debate reminds us of a scene that we’ve often referred to in this space, from the great “Broadcast News” (1987), in which Albert Brooks as Aaron Altman is telling Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig how William Hurt (as handsome yet vacuous anchor Tom Granick) is lowering standards:

What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance... Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women.

Truer words never have been spoken in the movies.

We’ve had a lot of coverage of Tesco’s planned incursion to the US, and one MNB user thought that we’ve been too enthusiastic:

I think you need a little more time to pronounce Tesco a winner in the USA. Plus your constant banter about every retailer should be afraid to open their doors in the morning a little premature. I have been calling on Tesco since last July and there is arrogance from the buying staff that I have never been exposed to in my 29 years in this business. They haven’t open one store yet but the want better deals than anyone else, the buyer’s interactions with suppliers are limited and their attitudes are condescending and arrogant. If Tesco is going to be as successful as you are assuring everyone, they might want to start with better relations their suppliers.

We think this is a fair criticism, though we’ve tried to be objective about what could happen in the US, and we certainly don’t think that everybody else should roll over and die. But we’ll try to be more sensitive about not pronouncing the incursion a success before a single store has even opened.

Still, we do think that what we’re reading and hearing about Tesco’s plans is extremely interesting…and potentially transformational. But we’ll try not to gush.

Another MNB user wrote:

Tesco also said that they were going to show American moms how not to make their kids so obese. Maybe they’ll help them get better SAT scores as well ! They do need to temper their peachiness. This attitudes often seep into their public face and turn off potential consumers. They may have some more short term issues...seems like a lot of Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets with expanded good-for-you ranges are popping up in Arizona. May be that they will be offering Americans the assortment of Fresh and Easy with one stop convenience of buying center store stuff. Sounds like an interesting battle is setting up in the Grand Canyon State.

We got an email yesterday about the whole supply chain efficiency vs. effectiveness debate:

Any type of widespread illness/pandemic flu will also cause a problem in the supply chain. With just in time delivery, the supply chain will be hard pressed to keep up after any disruption. People who are not prepared will find that food supplies will be exhausted quickly.

Another MNB user wrote in with a comment about food safety issues:

A small article in today's Honolulu paper: the American Dental Assoc. advises not using toothpaste from China - what does our upscale Waikiki hotel give our 14 year old who forgot his toothbrush? Toothpaste from China......of course I returned the toothpaste and the news article to the front desk......

And finally, one MNB user wanted to weigh in on the departmental name change from The Balance Sheet to The Department Of Permanent Financial Anxiety:

Dumb name! It's already burned-out.

Can’t please all the people all the time.

Just ask David Chase.

KC's View: