Natural Foods Merchandiser

How to respond to organic rumors and misleading studies

Have you heard the news? Organic food is dangerous. At least that’s according to various articles, studies and statements that have hijacked headlines over the past few years. While such misleading rumors are easy to laugh off, it gets hard when shoppers start believing them.

It might be time for some spin control. We ran three examples of anti-organic ideas by two public relations experts—Sylvia Tawse of the Fresh Ideas Group and Heather Smith of Lady Luxe Inc., both in Boulder, Colo.—to get their suggestions for appropriate responses. Some statements may be old, but these PR ideas will also work to battle any upcoming report your shoppers may come to you with.

1. “Why organic food is bad for the environment,”, June 2007
“A new study, conducted by a team of student researchers in the Department of Rural Economy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, showed that the greenhouse gas emitted when the produce is transported from great distances mitigates the environmental benefits of growing the food organically.”

This study is a perfect example of a conclusion not matching data, says Tawse. In particular, the article downplays the fact that conventional produce often travels as far, if not further, than organic produce.

Still, food miles are a real topic of concern, and many natural products do leave a heavy carbon footprint from transportation. It’s best to confront this challenge sensitively yet realistically, says Tawse: “The more organic and the more local you can support, the better. But the two concepts are not in competition with one another.”

Encourage shoppers to cut their carbon footprints by buying local, seasonal products, but remind them there’s also no need to feel guilty about circumstances out of their control. As Tawse puts it, “I am going to wake up every morning and enjoy my coffee from Africa—and I am not going to feel bad about it.”

2. “Organic Food Bad for Baby?” Associated Content, May 2006
“Under current legal guidelines dictating the composition of baby food labeled "organic," the addition of iron is prohibited. As a result, commercially prepared organic products contain some twenty percent less iron, thereby implying that baby will need to consume twenty percent more to get the daily recommended allowance of the mineral.”

This report is missing several pieces of information, says Smith. For one thing, there’s no mention of what level of iron should be in baby food, so it’s hard to understand the relevance of the “20 percent less iron” statement. Additionally, the study focused solely on processed organic baby foods—and not homemade organic meals many parents prepare.

Show shoppers how they can make their children meals using healthy ingredients, says Smith. “If I just picked up a frozen or jarred meal for myself every day, I’d be pretty sick of eating that sort of stuff,” she says.

In your store, display the truth about issues such as iron using information from either a local dietician or a national organization such as the Organic Trade Association, says Tawse. “I think it’s really important as a retailer when you aren’t an expert in something to go out and find the facts,” she says. “It’s your job to first and foremost educate your employees. That’s the only way they can educate your shoppers.”

3. “Why eating organic food can be bad for you,” The Independent, July 2005
“According to Professor Bruce Ames, who's among the most cited scientists in the world, 99 percent or more of the chemicals we eat are natural. What's more surprising, perhaps, is that he says 99.99 percent of the pesticides we eat are natural chemicals that are present in plants to ward off insects and other predators.”

Statements such as this play fast and loose with concepts like “natural,” “chemicals” and “pesticides” in order to equate nature’s methods of protection with compounds manufactured by big ag companies, points out Smith. And Ames’ arguments, while provocative, have been refuted by scientific research.

Still, don’t roll your eyes when a customer walks in espousing such claims, says Tawse.

“It’s really important for retailers to be willing to listen,” she says. “If someone is getting upset, your job is to stay calm and show that their position is being understood.” Then connect the customer with relevant information, whether that means providing fact sheets developed to respond to such claims or connecting her with your store’s community relations expert. That way, even if you can’t see eye to eye with the customer, you won’t come off as antagonistic or patronizing.

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