Thursday, March 31, 2005

'New and improved' organic

"The new ... package design coincides with the roll-out of several new and improved products including Low Fat Bars, Moist and Chewy Bars, Crackers and Soups," crows a food-processing executive in a press release.

No news in that; "new and improved" has been a cliché for shilling boxed foods since the 1960s, and food-processing execs are forever toying with packaging in hopes of jacking up sales.

The above statement, then, would fit into nearly any food-industry press release since the 1980s (the "low fat" business means it couldn't have emerged any earlier); however, that statement surfaced just a few days ago, from the PR department of none other than Hain Celestial, by its own reckoning a "leading natural and organic beverage, snack, specialty food and personal care products company in North America and Europe."

And thus we view the organic label's inexorable slide into tool for marketing heavily packaged and advertised junk food.

Certainly, there's no surprise in that development. As I've written before, the overall U.S. food market has matured, leaving industry heavyweights to scramble for new markets in the so-called developing world. The other way the food-processing titans such as Kraft and Heinz can eke out growth in a stagnate market is to roll out new products.

But Heinz can only tweak its (high-fructose corn syrup-laden) ketchup so many times, just as there's only so much Kraft can do to its mac and [processed] cheese [food]. One way forward for those companies is to roll out organic products--or buy into existing organic brands. Many readers will already know that Heinz owns 20 percent of Hain. Reader Lulu LaMer (note her blog's independently conjured title) has alerted me to this handy guide to which transnational industrial food giants own which allegedly sustainable-minded "health" food brands.

The attraction is obvious. This 2002 study from the USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) shows the premiums frozen organic vegetables get at the retail level over their conventionally grown peers. Organic frozen broccoli, for example, is 72 percent more expensive than conventional, while green peas draw a whopping 110 percent premium and green beans get an extra 76 percent by displaying the organic tag.

Thus while these companies maintain their slow-growing cash-cow products like mac and cheese and ketchup (which remain profitable because producing them is so cheap), they're rushing in to leverage organic cachet. The result has been the industrialization and commodification of a movement that arose to fight the industrialization and commodification of food. Here's how ERS describes processed organic food:

There are two basic marketing channels for processed organic foods. In both cases, farmers first produce raw commodities. In the first case, these commodities are then sent to the manufacturer, who converts them into a processed product. A distributor acts as a middleman, moving processed products from manufacturers to retailers. In the second scenario, a middleman (shipper) procures raw commodities from farmers and delivers them to manufacturers. After creating the processed good, the manufacturer moves the products through to retailers. The middleman secures the quantities needed; he or she also ensures that the commodities are high quality and meet the manufacturer’s organic standards.


Thus the power relations of industrial agriculture are preserved; the pricing power goes to the middlemen, the manufacturers, and the retailers, leaving little for farmers, who once again face the "get big or get out" edict of a market controlled by a few consolidated buyers. And farmers stop growing food for people to eat, but rather commodities--inputs in an industrial process that after much energy expenditure creates something like food.

The result may be free of pesticides, but I can't imagine it being delicious or particularly healthful.

26 Comments:

Blogger Marie said...

Wow! I just found you. I reside a ridge or two over from you. Great blog.

4/01/2005 05:53:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Glad to see you back Tom, and I'm looking forward to hearing about the NAFTA conference.

Also, the Lulu Lemer link doesn't seem to work, at least for me and my browser, but I successfully got there by typing in "bittergreens.net" in the address bar.

4/03/2005 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

Tom: I am glad that organic/natural food practices are penetrating Big Ag. While I also support eating food from small, local organic sources (because it's the most healthful), I still appluad loudly and claim a significant victory when I can walk into a Big Box grocer and get veggie burgers, unpastaurized OJ, raw organic cheese, grade B maple syrup, chips fried without hydrogenated oil, and juice boxes for my damned kid that doesn't contain corn syrup.

I can share your lamentation that Healthful Food is becoming homogenized/commodified. And though you have not stated so, I am sure you share my approbation of greater and cheaper access to these foods. No, the raw cheese I get from Kroger is not as great as that I could get from a local farmer. But shouldn't we health nerds hail the appearance of North Farms Raw Cheese at a big grocer? And elimination of hydrogenated oils from Frito-Lay and Ruby Tuesday?

It's not all bad, my friend. Signed, your advocate for small government and free markets.

4/07/2005 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Philpott said...

Paul,
Fair enough. But my point is that the broad problem bedeviling our food system is industrialization, and I don't see an industrial solution to it.

For example, Archer Daniels Midland is busily cooking up, in some factory somewhere, a cheap oil to provide an alternative to partially hydrogenated fat for making industrial chips, etc.

It bears the unpromising name of NovaLipid. Do you trust the company that brought the world high-fructose corn syrup to create the next ubiquitous chip-frying oil? Or that the industrial-food giants who fought bitterly for years to keep the government from telling the truth about trans-fats will give a damn whether NovaLipid is actually more healthy than the trans-fats it seeks to replace?

I'm glad my niece gets juice boxes unburdened by high-fructose corn syrup, and I appreciate that everyone in this culture, me included but particularly single working parents like yourself, has no choice but to rely on industrial food at least occasionally. I salute anyone who at least tries to make sure the industrial crap they buy is organic.

But I can't call the commodification of organic food a victory in the effort to create a just, sustainable, and delicious food system in the US—a goal which I realize is nearly impossible without making some broad and fundamental changes in our lifestyles.

4/09/2005 07:47:00 AM  
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Organic isn't all that much better, and in some cases worse. It has a religious fervor behind it that is unwarranted.

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