by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

Dec 11 2017

USDA’s case studies on front-of-package labeling

The FDA is responsible for food labeling but in the peculiar way things get done in federal agencies, the USDA governs front-of-package labeling for organics and also gets involved in labels for non-GMO, no-antibiotics and those for country-of-origin.

It has just published a report on all this:

The report is a good place to learn about the labeling laws passed in 1990, and it has an interesting case study on GMO labeling:

It has a lot to say about organic labeling:

Do such labels influence what the public buys?  Yes.  (That’s what the USDA is worried about)

Does the public understand what the labels mean?  Not really. (The USDA worries about this too)

The USDA derives many conclusions from this study, but boils them down to this statement:

There are fundamental tradeoffs in how information is presented to consumers. If it is presented simply, then important nuance or complexity may be missed. On the other hand, if standards and labels attempt to convey complexity, then consumers may just be confused. Policymakers and marketers will need to consider these tradeoffs in the future when developing new process-based labels.

What the USDA does not discuss is the fundamental issue behind fights over food labels.  They work well to discourage people from buying products that may not be good for them or do not meet their values.  That’s why the food industry opposes them so strongly.

Dec 1 2017

Weekend action: Advocating for organics (Toolkit!)

IFOAM—Organics International–offers a Global Policy Toolkit on Public Support to Organic Agriculture, for use by anyone who wants to advocate for organics and sustainable agriculture.

The toolkit includes:

The main report offers Policy summaries for specific measures to promote organic production and consumption.

No excuses!

Oct 2 2017

Rodale introduces Regenerative Organic Certification

The Rodale Institute has a new Regenerative Organic certification program with four requirements that include but go beyond those for USDA Certified Organic:

  • Increase soil organic matter over time, and potentially sequester carbon in the soil
  • Improve animal welfare
  • Provide economic stability and fairness for farmers, ranchers, and workers
  • Create resilient regional ecosystems and communities

An Infographic illustrates how it works.  It’s based on three pillars:

This program seems to address most of the major criticisms of USDA’s National Organic Program.   I will be interested to see whether farmers sign on for it.

Sep 25 2017

Good news: sales of organic foods

The USDA announces:  2016 Sales of U.S. Certified Organic Agricultural Production Up 23 Percent from Previous Year

Sales of organic agricultural production continued to increase in 2016, when U.S. farms produced and sold $7.6 billion in certified organic commodities….

Results of the 2016 Certified Organic Survey show that 2016 sales were up 23 percent from $6.2 billion in 2015.

During the same year, the number of certified organic farms in the country increased 11 percent to 14,217, and the number of certified acres increased 15 percent to 5.0 million.

The top commodities in 2016 were:

  • Milk – $1.4 billion, up 18 percent
  • Eggs – $816 million, up 11 percent
  • Broiler chickens – $750 million, up 78 percent
  • Apples – $327 million, up 8 percent
  • Lettuce – $277 million, up 6 percent

And here’s a quick look at the trend:

Image result for trends in organic foods

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May 25 2017

IFIC’s annual food-and-health survey: always intersting

The industry-funded International Food Information Council has just announced the release of it 12th annual Food and Health Survey.  This asks people what they think about a wide range of consumer issues related to food and nutrition.

The report is full of interesting tidbits about how Americans think about food issues.

Or this one:

This one is impressive:

And here’s my favorite:

Lots of interesting material here, all to be taken with some degree of caution since the data come from an online survey taking 22 minutes to complete.

Mar 21 2017

The proposed organic “checkoff:” an analysis

The New Food Economy’s Weekly Dish has a riveting piece about the debates over a proposal for an organic “checkoff” program.

Checkoffs are USDA-sponsored generic marketing and research programs for specific commodities.  They raise money from fees based on sales (the “checkoff”) that can be used for advertising campaigns such as the the dairy checkoff’s “milk mustache” or the pork checkoff’s “other white meat.”

Joe Fassler writes:

The proposed organic checkoff, technically termed the Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic (GRO Organic), is unusual for many reasons, but the most unprecedented thing is this: rather than advocating for one single commodity, the program would represent a huge and diverse class of goods. …That means not just organic apple farmers and organic pple snack-peddlers, but organic cotton producers and organic chocolatiers, as well as organic winemakers from Napa and importers of organic white grapes from Chile. …Taken together, the fees are estimated to generate anywhere from $25 to $40 million a year for the industry to spend on advertising, consumer education, and research.

There’s just one problem. Many organic farmers feel the checkoff is a bad idea….while checkoff programs tax an entire industry, they don’t benefit all stakeholders equally. The organic program will have to overcome a stigma that plagues checkoffs generally: they serve the most powerful players, the processors and middlemen, at the expense of small producers. Checkoffs, simply, have a lot of baggage.

What that baggage is takes up most of the article.

If you want to understand checkoffs in general and the peculiarities of the organic one in particular, this is the place to begin.

Nov 11 2016

Weekend reading: how to manage a small organic farm

Connor J. Fitzmaurice and Brian J. Gareau.  Organic Futures: Struggling for Sustainability on the Small Farm.  Yale University Press, 2016.  

This is an academic analysis of organic farming by two sociologists based on classic ethnographic fieldwork at a small organic farm in Massachusetts.  They introduce this book by exploring the meaning and consequences of organic “bifurcation,”

the observation that there are increasingly two organic sectors, one made up of relatively large farms that look more and more like the highly mechanized and highly capitalized conventional farms of agro-industry, and the other made up of small farms that are less mechanized, less highly capitalized more likely to sell directly to the consumer, and (at least in some cases) less likely to consider profit ahead of other concerns…we hope to extend and complicate the concept of bifurcation by paying attention to the relational, emotional, and moral underpinnings of organic farmers’ market relationships.

In trying to make a living in organic farming and to maintain personal values about how organic farming should be done, farmers encounter “moral, economic, and relational ambiguities.”  The authors refer to ways in which farmers manage those ambiguities as “good matches.”  Much of the book deals with what organic farmers have to do to achieve such matches.

This is real-world analysis.  Anyone interested in becoming a small farmer, or in what is entailed in doing this work, will find this book a reality check.

May 23 2016

Food-Navigator-USA’s Special Edition on Organics

This is one of Food Navigator-USA’s special editions in which this industry-focused newsletter collects several of its posts on particular topics—in this case, organics.

But first, take a look at the USDA’s summary of trends in organic food sales:

Special Edition: Where next for organics?

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales increased from $3.6 billion in 1997 to over $39 billion in 2014. But can the meteoric growth continue? And will organic ultimately replace the more nebulous ‘all-natural’ as consumers increasingly look for claims that are underpinned by consistent standards?

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