Organic Industry Watchdog Asks USDA to Crack Down on Labeling Abuses

April 22nd, 2010

Prominent Brands Using “Organic” in Their Name When Products Don’t Qualify

Cornucopia, WI—While the organic label is the gold standard of eco-labels on food packages, one major loophole in the federal organic standards remains—which an organic industry watchdog is asking the USDA to close. Companies are tightly regulated in terms of their use of the word “organic” on food packaging, but some businesses are deceiving customers by using the words “Organic” or “Organics” in their company name on food that does not legally qualify as organic.

“Companies are getting away with using the word ‘organic’ in their company name, listed prominently on food packages, even if the product they’re selling isn’t certified organic,” explains Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. “These companies are taking advantage of the good name and reputation of organics, without going the extra mile to actually source all organic ingredients in their products.”

Today, The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, sent a formal legal complaint to the USDA’s National Organic Program, and a second similar complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, highlighting labeling improprieties with three food brands; Oskri Organics, Organic Bistro and Newman’s Own Organics. These companies sell products that do not qualify to bear the “USDA Organic” seal, yet may appear organic to consumers based on the prominence of the word ‘Organic’ in their brand name.

Oskri Organics sells a variety of foods, including fruit preserves, nutrition bars and tahini (sesame butter). Some of their products, however, contain no certified organic ingredients. These Oskri Organics products are therefore no different from conventional foods, yet many consumers are presumably being unethically led to believe they are organic based on the company name, displayed on product packaging.

Organic Bistro sells frozen entrees made with organic vegetables, but uses non-organic chicken and turkey. “There is certainly no shortage of organic chicken or organic turkey, which are, obviously, more expensive than conventional meats,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s codirector. “By using conventional ingredients to cut costs, yet displaying the word ‘Organic’ so prominently on their packages, Organic Bistro is unfairly competing with truly organic companies that commit to sourcing organic meat.”

Newman’s Own Organics sells some certified organic products and some that only qualify for the “made with organic” label (70% organic content), yet uses the term “Organics” in their name—on all food packages.

Newman’s Own Organics, founded by the late actor Paul Newman and his daughter Nell, is a prominent company in the natural/organic marketplace and respected for the generous donations of their profits to charity.

Newman’s Own Organics Newman-O’s cookies contain conventional sugar, conventional canola oil and conventional cocoa, yet the webpage displays the “USDA Organic” seal and states: “Like our other products, Newman-O’s are certified organic by Oregon Tilth.” Yet these products do not legally qualify to bear the word “Organic” or the “USDA Organic” seal on their packaging.

“Newman-O’s, a product similar to Nabisco’s Oreo cookies, are not organic, yet consumers are led to believe that they are,” says Vallaeys. “Products that contain conventional ingredients, which are freely available in organic form, would never qualify for the USDA Organic seal. We think it’s time for the USDA to crack down on corporations gaming the system by putting the word ‘Organic’ or ‘Organics’ in their company name.”

This issue is up for discussion at the semiannual meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an expert citizen panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA. The NOSB meeting begins April 26 in Davis, California. But The Cornucopia Institute contends that the USDA already has the authority, under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and current organic regulations, to take action against the misuse of the word “Organic” in company names. And, the public-interest group stated that, “the FTC clearly has the authority to crack down on deceiving labeling claims.”

“Current organic standards specify that processed foods that are represented as ‘Organic’ must contain 95-100% organically produced raw or processed agricultural products,” explains Vallaeys. The only minor ingredients allowed that are not certified organic must be unavailable in organic form and approved by the NOSB. “By naming themselves ‘Organic Bistro’ or ‘Newman’s Own Organics,’ these companies are attempting to circumvent the standards, representing their products as organic without meeting the organic labeling standard.”

Other companies that offer both conventional and organic products have not acted deceptively, by eliminating the term “Organic” from their company name or company logo on their non-organic packaging.

Although Dean Foods’ WhiteWave division took a lot of heat last year when they introduced their first non-organic dairy products under the Horizon label, for example, the giant dairy conglomerate no longer uses the term “Organic” in their name or on its brand logo for its new “Natural” product line.

“Deceptive labeling practices, like putting organic in a company or brand name, hurts the ethical competitors and the entire organic food industry by blurring the meaning of the word “Organic” for consumers,” added Kastel. “Consumers should be able to trust that any food package with the word ‘Organic’ displayed prominently is truly certified organic, contains predominantly organic ingredients, and meets the letter and spirit of the law.”

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Newman’s Own Organics appears to intentionally mislead its customers when, on its website, it uses the USDA Organic seal and the accompanying line “The USDA Organic Seal assures that at least 95% of the ingredients are organically certified” on web pages of products that are not 95% Organic, such as their Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.

Worse yet, the Butter Cups’ product description, on its website, reads: “When organic peanut butter meets organic chocolate the results are Newman’s Own Organics Peanut Butter Cups.” This would suggest to consumers that their Butter Cups are organic, made with organic peanut butter and organic chocolate. Yet a close look at the ingredients list shows that non-organic peanut butter, and non-organic peanut flour, are used. This is a gross misrepresentation of their product—either in error or a deliberate attempt to trick consumers into thinking their products are in fact certified organic when they are not.

Newman’s Own Organics states on its website that its Hermits cookies are “made with organic raisins,” yet the ingredients list shows that, in addition to organic raisins, conventional raisin paste is also used. Research conducted by the USDA and Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, indicate that grapes (raisins) are one of the fruits with the highest levels of pesticide contamination.

For consumers who wish to avoid pesticide residues in their foods, especially pregnant women and parents of young children, it is important to look for certain ingredients as organic. “To see Newman’s Own Organics state that they use ‘organic raisins’ when non-organic raisin paste is used in the same product, is very troubling, especially since high levels of pesticide residues have been found on non-organic grapes, which are used to make raisin paste,” says Vallaeys.

Like many others in the organic food industry, The Cornucopia Institute respects the Newman’s Own company, of which Newman’s Own Organics is an off-shoot, for its generous donations of its proceeds to charity. Cornucopia contacted Nell Newman to bring this issue to her attention and request a meeting, to attempt to resolve the issue. Although the company acknowledged receipt of an e-mail, and stated they would forward it to Ms. Newman, as of press time, Cornucopia has not received a response to their e-mail contact nor to a letter delivered via Federal Express.

To view an image of a company that properly handles organic in its packaging, click here.

To view a screenshot of Newman’s Own website, click here.

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