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Can the flaws of organic marketing behind painted over?

A newly released blistering indictment of organic marketing may be a wake-up call to grocers about the risks of promoting the healthfulness of such claims

A new report released in late April accuses the organic-food industry of building its 3,400-percent increase in sales over the last quarter century only by using deceptive marketing practices, a deception that involved the willing participation of the U.S. government through its U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 16-page research review commissioned by "Academics Review," a non-profit association of academic professors, researchers, teachers and credentialed authors from around the world "committed to the unsurpassed value of the peer review in establishing sound science in food and agriculture," according to the group's description, studied more than 150 existing scientific sources to evaluate the organic industry's health claims--both those actively expressed and those only assumed by consumers but permitted to stand by marketers. And the results are not pretty for anyone offering up the organic experience to shoppers.

"Our review," the authors write, "suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal."

"This review of published research, documented organic and natural produce industry practices, and advocacy collaborations shows widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities, both transparent and covert, disparaging competing conventional foods and agriculture practices." Those concerted efforts between product marketers and "independent" nongovernmental organizations advocating for organics, the Review article said, "...have contributed to false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions influencing food purchase decisions [which have]...generated hundreds of billions in revenues."

"Our review of the top 50 organic food marketers finds these practices to be pervasive throughout the industry and not simply by a few bad actors. This disparagement marketing via absence claims with direct and implied health risk allegations is found on food packaging and labeling claims, in-store marketing displays, online campaigns, media relations, and extensive advertising in print, radio and television. Additionally, research reveals that anti-GMO and anti-pesticide advocacy groups promoting organic alternatives have combined annual budgets exceeding $2.5 billion annually and that organic industry funders are found among the major donors to these groups."

Blindly following organic food companies into that shaky marketing scheme risks the grocer's reputation when studies like the Academics Review article reveal health claims to be questionable. Organics-industry critic Mischa Popoff, author of Is it Organic? a critical dissection of not only the business behind today's organics industry but also its not-so-attracive ideology, believes retailers may be especially vulnerable to the "cunning deception" of organic marketing.

"As the final 'entity' in the food chain just before the consumer, retailers should know they are the ones with everything on the line if the whole organic industry turned out to be a house of cards," Popoff, a former organic inspector who wrote Is it Organic? to expose the continual "cheating" he witnessed throughout the certification process, told Farmer Goes to Market. "And if they were paying attention, they could plainly see that without any testing, organic certification is indeed a house of cards."

But rather than join in and "beef up" the organic certification process, he argues, retailers have simply tried to take themselves out of that potential line of fire by positioning themselves as innocent bystanders in what he believes is a failed system.

"For years," he says, "I’ve wondered why every single entity in the organic food chain is required to be inspected and certified under the USDA National Organic Program. No exeptions! Everyone from the farmer, to the broker, through processing and packaging--even the truckers, for God’s sake; they all have to certified."

"Everyone, except for the retailer."

"A handful of organic retailers who became 'voluntarily certified' aside, retailers in the organic biz for the most part clearly took themselves out of the whole rigmarole of being certified precisely so they could claim they’re 'only the merchandiser,' and hence wash their hands of all responsibility. It’s kind of like when politicians pass laws on ethical behavior, but exempt themselves."

Popoff believes it's dangerous ground to be standing on as the claims about organic grow more and more questionable. Consumer studies almost exclusively show shoppers choose a retail location – and stick with it – because they trust the brand and the name. That kind of trust isn’t earned easily, and it is a highly perishable commodity that can be quickly lost by appearing to be playing loose with the true health and wellness claims of organic.

What's your opinion? Use the comments section to let your fellow grocers know what you think about this contentious issue.

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