Natural products brands under fire for use of 'organic'

Formal complaints have been filed against three natural product brands for what one group says is the misleading use of the word 'organic' on product labels.

The Cornucopia Institute sent a formal legal complaint to the USDA's National Organic Program, and a similar complaint to the Federal Trade Commission against Oskri Organics, Organic Bistro and Newman's Own Organics.

The complaints state that the companies sell products that don't qualify for the USDA Organic seal, yet appear to be organic because of the word organic in their brand name.

The Cornucopia Institute is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group that advocates for family-scale farming. The letters of complaint are part of its Organic Integrity Project, which acts as a watchdog initiative to protect the integrity of organic farming.

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.

Organic Bistro sells frozen entrees made with organic vegetables, but uses nonorganic chicken and turkey.

Newman's Own Organics sells some certified organic products and some that only qualify for the "made with organic" label (70 per cent organic content), yet uses the term "Organics" on all food packages.

"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," said 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."

Waiting to Act?
The issue of using the word 'organic' in brand names is going to be discussed at the semiannual meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an expert citizen panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA. The meeting begins April 26 in Davis, California.

But it is the belief of The Cornucopia Institute that the USDA already has the authority to clamp down on this use, under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The FTC also has the power to crack down on deceptive labeling.

"Current organic standards specify that processed foods that are represented as 'organic' must contain 95-100 per cent 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."

The misuse of the term 'organic' extends beyond just product labeling, The Cornucopia Institute says.

Newman's Own Organics website 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 percent Organic, such as their Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups and Newman-O's cookies.

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," the Institute said.

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