Everything is Natural

6 01 2008

By Jill Ettinger

“This is for the health food fiends, the natural-fabric gang, and all those green-head environmental hustlers who stomp around in the ‘natural’: Your key word is meaningless. Everything is natural. Everything in the universe is part of nature. Polyester, pesticides, oil slicks, and whoopee cushions. Nature is not just trees and flowers. It’s everything. Human beings are part of nature. And if a human being invents something, that’s part of nature, too. Like the whoopee cushion.” – George Carlin

The definition of organic came under USDA regulation officially in 2002, though its designation is still contested in such high profile debates as the care and handling of livestock (such as the situation for Colorado based Aurora Dairy). Their questionable practices have them in the throes of accusations and lawsuits from citizen watch dog groups pressuring Aurora to either (a) make severe changes to their livestock handling, including access to pasture and reduced herd size, or (b) stop calling themselves organic. Aurora has taken full-page ads out in trade magazines announcing a commitment to fight their accusers, insisting there is no basis to the claims they do not sell organic dairy. But as Organic Consumers citizen action group alleges, “On April 16, 2007, the USDA confirmed [watchdog group] Cornucopia’s allegations by making administrative findings that the giant industrial-scale dairies, milking thousands of cows each, were not providing their cattle with pasture, as required by law, had illegally brought conventional cattle into their operations, and had committed a number of other serious improprieties. The most serious finding, resulting from the USDA investigation, was that Aurora sold, labeled, and represented milk as organic when in fact it was not, in ‘willful violation’ of the law.”

Aurora’s Chairman and CEO responds in an October 16th, 2007 press release: “It’s ironic we’ve been falsely accused of misleading customers … The principal sources of misinformation and consumer confusion are the activist groups that are attacking our company and encouraging the filing of misguided lawsuits. Their agenda is clear: they want to limit the supply of organic milk and drive up the price paid by American families. This would harm consumers and slow the spread of organic agriculture. If they win, consumers lose.”

Aurora may very well be “technically” organic. But what interest would a consumer action group have in driving up prices of organic products or making them less accessible to their members – the lifeblood of their institutions? If introducing conventionally raised cattle to an organic herd is an organic practice, then it’s surely also a questionable one. Modern food is a paradox.

Even with the USDA regulating what can and can’t be called organic, there is clearly a line that’s hard to see. Questions are also increasing about the efficacy of China’s organic standards, with contaminations sending goods arriving at U.S. ports back across the Pacific. The growing demand for year-round access to seasonal organic fruits and vegetables – like grapes from Chile, mangos from Mexico and cucumbers from Spain – adds fossil-fuel-burning food miles which ardent environmentalists argue negates the measures in which the produce was grown. Along with stricter guidelines to what can be classified as organic comes additional expenses in upgrading farms and facilities to regulation and inspection fees, which can be prohibitive to the small-scale producer, even if by the letter of the law they are running an organic operation.

Enter: natural. The term has long been debated for its use in the health food industry, most often used to describe something that is not organic but feigns to be free of many harmful pesticides, chemicals, preservatives and artificial additives. Usually.

The organic industry’s double-digit growth is turning the little granola-eating-herbal-tea-sipping-co-op-members-only cottage industry into Wal-Mart top sellers, and everyone else is looking to cash in, causing situations like the one for cows in Colorado. The category now more commonly referred to as “natural and organic” includes a rise in conventional items posturing as organic, requiring consumers to be more scrutinizing when reading labels. With no regulatory claims being enforced by the FDA, items like autolyzed yeast extract or glutamic acid (both better known as MSG), high fructose corn syrup and the super refined sugar linked to the rise in obesity and type II diabetes are commonplace ingredients. Clearly these ingredients benefits are questionable and probably more accurately detrimental, but aren’t they still natural?

The FDA claims its limited resources restrict their ability to pursue further investigation on “natural” claims. Plus, they’re not sure how high of a priority regulated designation is to consumers. Perhaps that’s because consumers themselves are confused. Certainly like George Carlin states, all things are innately natural, even amidst our most heinous tinkering. However natural all that may be, the result can also be problematic, like the way in which our “natural world” seems to be gasping under pressure from excessive (mis)use of fossil fuels.

The real questions consumers should be asking themselves – and of their food suppliers – are not “What is natural?” or “What is organic?,” but “What is true?” A hundred years from now Taco Bell’s cheesy-melty-good-to-go “4th meal” campaign will (hopefully) seem as foreign as old cigarette ads boasting doctor recommendations. Manipulation, it seems, is also quite natural.

Whether the FDA eventually renders a claim as ubiquitous as “natural” worthy of standing for something specific is still unknown. Whether consumers have the gumption to demand truth and transparency can never come soon enough. Maybe there’s nothing more natural than that.




One response

24 08 2011

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