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Organic vs. Conventional: Pundits Are Welcome to Their Own Opinion, But Not Their Own Facts

Because Food Safety News holds an important perspective in the industry, I was surprised to see the website publish a commentary by Mr. Mischa Popoff.

Mr. Popoff has spent the last few years promoting his self-published book, Is It Organic.  He has made irresponsible and unsupported claims that 80 percent of all organic food in North America is imported and riddled with fraud — a grave disservice to the hard-working organic farmers in this country and their loyal customers.

The subtitle of his book says it all: The Inside Story of Who Destroyed the Organic Industry, Turned It into a Socialist Movement and Made Million$ in the Process, and a Comprehensive History of Farming, Warfare and Western Civilization from 1645 to the Present.

Whoa Nelly!  If you connect the dots, by looking at the other issues that Mr. Popoff writes about, and commonly published on ultraconservative websites (challenging climate change, defending genetically engineered food production, challenging the efficacy of hybrid automobiles and even parenting issues) you would have to conclude that organic food is a component of some kind of Bolshevik plot to take over this country.

He joins the father and son team of Dennis and Alex Avery, of the Hudson Institute, in taking every opportunity to denigrate the reputation of organics.  Many of the think tanks that support the Averys, and now Popoff, have received funding from Monsanto, DuPont and other interests in the agrochemical and biotechnology industries.  Companies that produce farm chemicals and genetically engineered seed quite rightfully might be concerned by the growing competition stemming from the shift to eating organically by consumers.

I encourage you to read The Cornucopia Institute’s backgrounder, Who Is Misha Popoff.

Popoff has had almost no exposure in the mainstream media here in the U.S., so it is disturbing to find his byline on Food Safety News. 

There is no factual basis for his thesis, articulated in his op-ed, that somehow organic food is more dangerous than conventional food and that the basis of the problem is the lack of testing for pathogenic contamination.

It is incumbent on all farmers and food producers to follow basic food safety protocols.  The organic law prescribes a set of standards for farmers and food processors.  Organic production is subject to the same regulatory protocols prescribed by the USDA and FDA and any applicable state and local laws.

In addition, Popoff’s essay includes the following inaccurate and misleading information:

1.      His claim that, “over 25 years of research has failed to find any harm from GM technology,” is patently false.  There’s been virtually no human health testing (not required by the federal government) and there have been almost no lifetime trials on laboratory animals (just short term studies).  Furthermore, there is a growing body of peer-reviewed, published scientific literature pointing to some significant abnormalities in laboratory animals and livestock being fed genetically modified feed.

Consumers choosing to eat organically are exercising caution by operating under the “Precautionary Principle.”

2.      He suggests that any organic food contaminated with pathogens should not be allowed to be certified as organic.  This is a specious argument because any food, organic or conventional, contaminated with dangerous pathogens should not be marketed for human consumption, period.

3.      He uses the example of a prior outbreak of contaminated bean sprouts in Europe as a model of organic production protocols run amok.  And he suggests that contaminated water might have been a factor.  However, producing bean sprouts is a high risk enterprise, be they organic or conventional, and using tested, potable water is universally a regulatory requirement.Most problems with contaminated bean sprouts, as the example he cited in Germany, are thought to emanate from contaminated seed which, again, is a hazard for organic and conventional production alike.  There is nothing inherently more dangerous about organic bean sprouts than conventional.

4.      His claim that organic food consumption in the United States is about 1 percent of the market is inaccurate.  I have seen authoritative reports pegging it at 3 to 4 percent with some commodities, like organic milk, being at about 6 percent, and fruits and vegetables significantly higher than that.  These numbers are based on market studies by the USDA, the Organic Trade Association and published by respected trade journals in the produce industry.

5.      He suggests that the director of the USDA’s National Organic Program, Miles McEvoy, took it upon himself to institute random testing for agrochemical contamination in organics.  The truth is that this testing requirement was part of the Organic Foods Production Act passed by Congress.  Pressure from The Cornucopia Institute, Consumers Union and other advocacy groups prompted an investigation by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General as to why testing had not been implemented as required by law.

6.      The cost of testing, sample collection and transportation requirements (sometimes refrigerated) for chemical residues and pathogens, as suggested by Mr. Popoff, on 100 percent of organic operations, would greatly increase the cost of organic food.  Cornucopia supports the 5 percent , annual, random testing requirement.  At this rate, the USDA will conduct over five times as many audits as the IRS currently conducts.  It is a prudent adjunct to the established rigorous annual inspection of both organic farms and facilities and all documents pertaining to organic management.

In closing, the fundamental precept of Mr. Popoff’s attempt to challenge the credibility of organic food production is flawed.  Organic food is subject to the same standards of cleanliness, and regulatory safeguards, as any other food in the market, imported or domestic. 

There is a history of inexcusable neglect during this presidential administration and prior administrations in the execution of food safety laws to protect U.S. citizens.  And Congress has been grossly remiss in failing to adequately fund the infrastructure and inspectors in the field, especially in scrutinizing imported food.  We should demand excellence from our government in this regard and we certainly are not getting it.           

Again, we respect the important journalism being done at Food Safety News, in putting pressure on the food industry and government to, literally, clean up its act.  Publishing Mr. Popoff’s opinion piece was an unfortunate aberration.


Food Safety News

Conventional formats up 1%, non-traditional up 3.1%: Bishop study

Sales within traditional grocery formats increased 1% during 2013, while sales within non-traditional formats rose 3.1%, according to an annual survey by Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill.

Traditional grocery formats accounted for sales of $ 522.8 billion last year, with a market share of 46%, down slightly from 46.5% in 2012, while non-traditional grocery sales rose to $ 442.1 billion, or 39%, compared with 38.6% a year ago.

Convenience-store sales accounted for 15% of sales, or $ 169.9 billion — compared with 14.9% in 2012 — with stores selling gas accounting for 12.8% of the total and stores without gas for 2.2%.

E-commerce sales for food and consumables, which are included among non-traditional grocery, rose 13.7% to $ 21.1 billion in 2012, compared with $ 15.9 billion a year earlier. The report projected that e-commerce sales will grow at a rate of 9.5% a year through 2018.

The report, which Bishop Consulting has been doing since 1983, is entitled “The Future of Food Retailing.”

Among traditional formats, conventional supermarket sales grow 0.4%, though market share fell to 39.1%, compared with 39.8% a year earlier — the largest decrease among all formats. The report said the share for conventional supermarkets will fall to 36.2% by 2018.

Fresh formats saw sales grow 10.4%, the largest increase among all formats; while limited-assortment store sales rose 4.1%; super-warehouse stores experienced sales growth of 3.5%; small grocery store sales increased 2.4%; and convenience stores sales also rose 2.4%, the report indicated.


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Among non-traditional grocery formats, wholesale club sales increased 2.3%; supercenter sales climbed 4%; dollar stores saw an 8.9% increase; drug store sales of food and consumables were up 1.4%; and military sales fell 5.2%, due primarily to a two-week shutdown, the report noted.

Looking ahead to 2018, the report said market share for traditional groceries is expected to drop 1.2% to 44.8%, while non-traditional grocery share will increase to 40.1% with supercenter sales rising to 19.4% from 17.6% in 2013 —and c-stores will rise to 15.1%.

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4Earth Farms growing its conventional and organic Brussels sprouts programs

With 4Earth Farms’ rebranding effort now well under way, the company (formerly MCL Fresh Inc.) continues to generate excitement with new acreage and increased yields in both conventional and organic Brussels sprouts.

“As the popularity of Brussels sprouts continues to grow, so does our commitment to expanding our sources and supplies” David Lake, chief executive officer and co-founder of 4Earth Farms, said in a press release. “Through strategic growing partnerships, increased acreage in both Mexico and California, as well as experimenting with different varieties of Brussels sprouts, we have taken what has traditionally been a cold-weather crop and successfully turned it into a year-round program.”

“We are always looking for ways to help our customers drive sales, and providing consistent year-round supplies is our goal for all our core vegetable items,” Mark Munger, vice president of sales and marketing, added in the press release. “We focused our efforts last year on making our year-round conventional Brussels sprouts program a success, and now our energies are being focused on doing the same for our organic Brussels sprouts program.”

With organic products becoming increasingly mainstream and demand remaining high, the expansion Munger refers to encompasses an increase in the company’s organic yield, including potatoes, pineapples, cabbage, green beans, cilantro, spinach and kale.

“I am not going to say that developing a year-round organic Brussels sprouts program has been easy — it has not,” Anthony Innocenti, vice president of organic sales, added in the press release. “That said, but for a couple short gaps, we are very close to being there.”

The company has cultivated a number of new Brussels sprouts grower relationships in the past six months, adding to its more than 2,000 harvested acres in California and Baja California.

“While focusing on supply, we have also focused on providing 4Earth Farms Brussels sprouts in a variety of ways,” Munger added in the press release. “We are currently offering branded 4Earth organic bags and clamshells, 4Earth Farms conventional one- and two-pound pillow packs, Brussels sprouts on the stalk, bulk cases for both retail and foodservice customers, as well as we are fulfilling a number of private-label programs.”

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