In the Barbe-Queue: Organic Burgers

Just in time for holiday cookouts, the Washington Post has a story about uproar over watering down the U.S. Department of  Agriculture’s organic label.

It chronicles questions about the purity of the USDA Organic stamp that can be found on everything from T-shirts, cosmetics and pet food to the hamburgers and corn on the cob enjoyed at the typical All-American Independence Day bash. The Post story inquires: Has the country’s preeminent organic label become tainted by the influences of factory farmers and food processing giants? Do products bearing the stamp no longer meet national standards? 

Pressing as those questions may be they are hardly the only controversies surrounding “healthy” and “green” claims used to sell products that have swept into our supermarkets and discount stores in the last couple of years.

TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, has published a review of 2,219 consumer product claims. It found that 98 percent of the items had false or misleading advertisements on their labels. 

The Consumers Union is also hard at work debunking falsely “green” advertising. Its Eco-Labels Center is a clearinghouse of more and less “meaningful” labels and standards. Decisions are based on a few things: Are the claims verified? Is the information consistent and available to the public? Are the labels free of influence by the companies hawking the merchandize?

“You can have good labels and standards that are not independent. But they tend to have more bias and cater more to the lowest common denominator. And, third-party verification means nothing when the label is made by a trade association,” Consumers Union senior scientist Urvashi Rangan, told me this spring for an article in ArchitectureWeek about the National Association of Home Builders new greenwashing green building labels.

While it may not seem exactly shocking to learn industry groups sometimes fudge the facts to sell more goods, a surprising number of greenwashing scandals involve the very government agencies charged with protecting the public.

The Federal Trade Commission “crackdown” on greenwashing has been less than robust. Since the FTC launched its green advertising overhaul last year, pitifully few companies have been called on the carpet. Even the Environmental Leader, a “green business” website, reacted with a Jun. 20 editorial that screamed: FTC on Greenwashing: Is That All There Is? And, EL is a publication that never saw a green business initiative it didn’t like.

Today’s Post story centers on the unilateral decision of one USDA bureaucrat to lift a ban on synthetic additives in “organic” baby food. The same official issued 2004 directives allowing farmers to sometimes use pesticides on organic crops and feed non-organic fish meal to organic livestock. Both of the 2004 decisions caused maelstroms and were later overturned, as the Post rehashes today.

Created in 2002, the USDA Organic label was intended to put an end to such controversies by establishing firm rules for what could be sold as “organic.” But, there are big bucks in the balance – the market has grown to about $24 billion a year. The label has become a battlefield pitting the farmers and purist consumers, who pioneered the organics market, against corporate giants like Kraft Foods, Campbell Soup and Dean Foods that are drawn to the double-digit growth rates and premium prices.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency has been implicated in greenwashing. Until the new administration pulled the plug, the EPA ran a special program that rewarded hundreds of companies with fewer inspections and laxer hazardous waste disposal requirements. Participants were portrayed as having impressive pollution-busting policies. But they included some of the biggest polluters in the country; companies that had paid millions of dollars in EPA fines.

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