Ever wonder why your favourite mom 'n' pop crunchy granola organic cereal is suddenly appearing next to Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop in mainstream supermarket aisles? Well, it ain't because Pa scored a killer deal with the mega-grocers of Canada. Rather, crunchy granola has been taken in by another, better-connected family - Big Food - but it's all very hush-hush.
If you walk into your local health food store, for instance, you'd assume nothing much had changed. Okay, so you're cereal of choice might have slightly jazzier packaging and five new spinoff varieties (like super crunchy granola with berries). But nowhere on the box is there any indication of corporate infiltration - no little Kellogg's logo or Kraft insignia - even though as much as 40 per cent of packaged organic foods on health store shelves like the Big Carrot's have been bought out by large American corporations.
"It's very inconspicuous. For the most part they try to hide it as much as possible," says Asa Copithorne, chair of the standards committee and floor manager at the Big Carrot, who notes the number of takeovers has grown rapidly over the last five years.
If nothing else, Big Food knows its new clientele enough to recognize the potentially devastating impact that throwing a corporate logo on something like Earth's Best baby food might have on a brand. "The heavy organic buyer would not only not be impressed, but the brand would have zero credibility, so it won't help sales," says York marketing prof Alan Middleton.
Not that sales are suffering. The organic food biz is now the fastest growing food sector, worth about $15 billion in the U.S. and $3.1 billion in Canada. Some would say all that corporate backing just means organic brands are available in more and more stores, to a wider and wider audience. Maybe we should be commending companies for taking an interest in healthy living?
Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association (OCA), doesn't think so. Not when dollar signs drive industry to water down organic standards. And Cummins says the Organic Trade Association (whose list of newer members includes Dole, Kraft and the Grocery Manufacturers of America) has been doing just that, quietly lobbying the U.S. Senate to legalize the use of certain synthetic processing and handling aids (ingredients deemed illegal in a recent court ruling) and make it easier to approve others without public input.
OCA (a network of about 600,000 consumers) launched a massive counter-campaign and managed to derail the effort - at least temporarily. But Cummins blames the whole mess on corporate interference. "It appears the Organic Trade Association has been taken over by large corporate food processors. This is not the way the organic community ever acted before. This is the way Monsanto acts." (For more on the situation see article on page 24.)
Why should we care about American dust-ups? When 90 per cent of our organics come from the U.S., their problems become ours. And with Canada's national organic standards finally coming into being (a draft is being voted on now that's expected to be made into regulations by March 2006), many worry that trade pressures will mean Canada's standards will look a little too much like our largest trading partner's.
Joe Southall, head of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's organic task force (the CFIA will be enforcing our standard), says that's not the case. For instance, the U.S. system fails to specify the amount of square footage a chicken or cow should be given, but the Canadian standard does. However, like our neighbours, we don't provide much detail about how long those animals should be outside.
In the U.S. that lack of clarity has been abused to the point where about a third of all organic milk comes from confined factory-style stalls without access to the outdoors. While some corporations like Whole Foods are pressuring the government to see American standards strengthened, most mainstream milk producers and retailers argue it's the only way to keep up with demand.
Is Canada leaving itself open to that kind of abuse here? Hard to say until the final regs are set in stone, but Toronto's most widely marketed certified organic milk, Organic Meadow, is co-op owned and guarantees its cows get to go outside whenever they like, except in frigid weather. But what is clear is that mega-retailers like Wal-Mart (which declared organics to be the chain's fastest growing food category) and Loblaws (Canada's single largest retailer and distributor of organics) are pressuring farmers to keep supply high and prices low.
It's the kind of business mandate that terrifies organic farmers, says Laura Telford, executive director of Canadian Organic Growers. "Consumers say it's great that prices are coming down. But we cringe when we hear that because we want to create a sustainable food system, and I don't think we can at current prices."
Few local farmers are reaping the benefits of all this supermarket exposure. Thanks to centralized buying, Telford says, "big grocery stores all buy from the same farmer in California. Because they can get year-round contracts at low prices from [California], they won't go to Canadian farmers. They won't pay for local." Adds Telford, "It's a really, really dangerous phenomenon."
Loblaws did not return NOW's calls for comment by press time.
Still, Katherine DiMatteo, head of the Organic Trade Association, says the advantages of having corporations on side are often overlooked. They can pay for more organic R&D, more supply, more conversion of lands to organic. "Otherwise," says DiMatteo, "we, the organic movement, will remain a small niche market that doesn't deliver the changes we hoped would come from organic production - the enhancement of the environment and of public health."
Maybe so, but Cummins worries the opposite is also true. "The fear in the organic community is, of course, if things go too far, we're going to have to have another label, something other than the the word 'organic. '"
Who owns what
Guess which corporations are hiding behind your favourite organic/natural brands.
KELLOGG'S Kashi (cereal)
KRAFT Back to Nature (crackers, cookies) Boca Foods (soy "meat" products)
CADBURY SCHWEPPES Nantucket Organic Nectars
DANONE Stonyfield Farm (yogurt)
HEINZ Owns 16 per cent of Hain Celestial, which in turn owns Arrowhead Mills (cereal, flour) Health Valley (cookies, soup) Casbah (mediterranean food) Imagine (rice/soy milk) Yves (veggie meats) Westbrae (Westsoy) (soy milk) Earth's Best (baby food)