For people not intimately involved with the organic food industry, the rise of organic food products from humble origins on the fringes of American counter-culture to the center of a multi-billion dollar industry has probably passed unnoticed. Only ten years ago organic products were found almost exclusively in specialty stores, and were largely produced by small specialized organic food companies.
After years of baby-stepping its way into larger markets organic food took a major symbolic leap toward universal acceptance this fall when McDonald's Corporation decided to test organic fair-trade coffee in some of its restaurants. A recent New York Times article used the event to examine the little-known entrance of food giants McDonald's, General Mills, Wal-Mart, and Dean Foods into the organic market.
A more violent clash of images is hard to imagine. For years McDonald's has been the very anti-thesis of the organic food movement with its well-known use of low-grade commercial meats and preservative-laden buns. For the American public the terms have even come to define entire subcultures as more 'organic' lifestyles have become popular and the 'fast food nation' has been demonized.
When consumers in McDonald's New England test markets start seeing Green Mountain organic coffee at the golden arches in the waning months of 2005, these anti-ethical worlds will have officially met. Even though traditional supporters of organic food might be tempted to dismiss McDonald's move as insincere profiteering, the message communicated by the expansion of corporate organic food is positive.
McDonald's organic move indicates that Americans can change the way major corporations do business by making choices to consume products that fit not just physical quality requirements, but also political, ecological and moral standards. This heartening revelation affirms that no matter how much money is spent to push questionable products like McDonald's hamburgers, in the end consumers are in control.
Despite the generally positive message contained in McDonalds' action, organic food consumers have legitimate reasons to be concerned about the future of their products in the American market place. The definition of organic food is now up for reconsideration as a result of the actions of several House Republicans on the Agriculture appropriations subcommittee.
Some congressmen slipped a last minute provision into the subcommittee's 2006 budget, which allows for more artificial ingredients to be included in products bearing the 'USDA Organic' label. The provision only slightly loosens the USDA's definition of organic food products, but will negatively effect producers and consumers of organic food.
A broader definition of organic food products will disproportionately benefit latecomers to the organic market like Dean, McDonald's, and Wal-Mart because it will allow them to lower market-entry costs. These companies are already set up for non-organic production so their transfer to organic production will be slightly easier under an expanded definition.
In order to stay competitive, companies that have always produced organic food will be forced to degrade their products by adding proportionate amounts of cheaper non-organic products. The result of this will inevitably be a race to the bottom for organic food in terms of quality and organic content which will not be welcomed by consumers who prefer to more strictly organic products.
While the net effect of such a competitive downgrading of organic food will be lower costs for consumers, the principles of food quality and ecological sustainability that founded the organic food revolution will be severely compromised. A wider definition is consequently unacceptable.
The term 'organic' has a specific meaning in the eyes of consumers, and eroding that meaning essentially equates low-level consumer fraud designed to help food production giants muscle their way into the organic market. Pioneering producers and devoted consumers have built the $12 billion per-year American organic food market under a tight definition and deserve to reap profits therein under that same definition.
The House Republican's expanded definition of 'organic' will differ slightly from the original, but their definition-expansion effort communicates a message complimentary to the positive one derived from McDonald's organic coffee experiment. Consumers can affect change in large companies through conscious consumption, but they must also be politically vigilant to ensure that the changes they provoke are honestly maintained.