The organics industry—the newly crowned prince of the natural products world—has watched waning consumer confidence dethrone supplements, leaving it to wonder: Will the same plight befall it?
In the last year, supplements sales continued to be flat, disappointing natural products retailers used to double-digit annual increases. Overall, supplements sales in the mass market grew by 8.7 percent last year, but some mainstays, such as one- and two-letter vitamins, dropped 7.9 percent, according to Information Resources Inc. Liquid minerals and vitamins dropped 4.5 percent. And while sports supplements, homeopathy and specialty supplements sales rose significantly, Natural Foods Merchandiser's "Market Overview" (June 2001), reports modest sales gains for both vitamins (4.3 percent) and herbs and botanicals (2 percent), with a drop in mineral sales (2 percent).
No death knell for supplements, just a disappointment at the turned tide of past outrageous good fortune. Industry experts say supplements suffered from media coverage that exposed unsubstantiated claims, the Food and Drug Administration's inability to enforce standards and a lack of early self-regulation by the industry.
Has organics—with its double-digit growth and continued penetration of mainstream markets—built a firewall against the same faltering performance supplements has suffered? Experts argue that to some degree organics doesn't have to.
"Organics is not making the same kinds of claims that supplements do," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. "Organics is not a preventive or a cure for some disease. The certified-organic label is saying this has been produced a certain way."
That distinction makes it easier to maintain consumer confidence, argue experts such as Bob Scowcroft, executive director and co-founder of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif. "Organics is food. It's a production system. We can't tell you whether you should drink organic beer, or if you've had too much of it [but] we can tell you how it was made."
"Organics is a different thing than supplements," says Andy Berliner, co-owner of Amy's Kitchen organic foods in Santa Rosa, Calif. The efficacy of supplements is difficult to measure, but to prove that something is organic is to prove its process. "That's a clearer, more provable, more understandable statement," he says.
David Seckman, executive director of the National Nutritional Foods Association in Newport Beach, Calif., represents both supplements and organics. "Food is easier to understand," he agrees, so scrutiny and claims are easier to make.
Scowcroft additionally believes that because organics was built on the premise that people should know what's in their food, a consumer right-to-know ethic surrounds organics and keeps consumer confidence high. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Final Rule on organics, to take full effect in October 2002, mandates that any test results from certifying organic products must be public information, says Keith Jones, director of program development for the National Organics Program in Washington, D.C. The only exception is if the analysis is part of an ongoing compliance investigation.
Even with the distinction in products and claims, some organics experts are skeptical—nervous even—that supplements' Achilles' heel will afflict them, too.
Supplements is "three or four years ahead of [organics]," says Loren Israelsen, executive director of Utah Natural Products Alliance in Salt Lake City. "Pay attention. Watch and learn where we went right and where we went wrong. And God bless them," he says of organics.
One area to watch is whether the USDA will enforce organic certification. By October 2002, the NOP mandates that all organics certifiers be accredited by the USDA to judge organics by newly written federal guidelines. The FDA has been understaffed or underbudgeted to do the same for supplements. Will the USDA do any better?
"There's every reason to believe it will be better," Jones says. "The difference between the two [agencies] is apples and oranges." Private and state organics certifiers already exist, Jones says, and simply need to be accredited by the USDA. Accrediting the certifiers "is our whole focus right now," he says. The USDA has received about a dozen applications from certifiers, but Jones expects that to pick up as October 2002 approaches.
Also, the USDA has more resources with which to investigate claims than does the FDA, Jones argues. The 10 people working for the NOP are "the tip of the iceberg," he says. All 3,000 members of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Services are there to investigate compliance issues, he says. The FDA, on the other hand, "has different competing interests on health and safety. They have to prioritize their workload, and there isn't enough staff. It's just a different deal here."
Generally, organics industry experts are skeptical, but hopeful Jones is right. Most, however, truly fear negative press.
"Organics needs to be ready for the inevitable media scrutiny," Israelsen says. "Issues such as certification, GMOs and bacterial levels will come up."
"Everyone wants to prove that organics is not nutritious, that consumers are being duped, that organics contains pesticide residues, you name it," DiMatteo says. "We have to combat that by saying that for 11 years, organic has been recognized by the government as a legitimate form of agricultural production."
Israelsen agrees. "Katherine is a realist," he says of DiMatteo. "And she understands the dilemma of the promise of organics." That dilemma, he says, is that many people overdefine organics as something more than an agricultural production process. They think it means local farming, family farming, better tasting food or more nutritious food. "People have high hopes and expectations of organics," he says. "Go back to the fundamentals," he suggests. "It's good for the planet. It's a good idea for proper land management. It's agriculture at a sustainable level. ... It represents a superior way of growing food." Don't embellish that message, he says. "Be very careful what you promise the customer."
A May 2001 article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine, for example, criticizes organics because Pollan wants it to also mean family farming and local production—ideals that organics have traditionally embraced, but that go beyond the organic production process. This kind of criticism is common, and to it, DiMatteo says, "Do you want local and organic? Family farmer and organic? ... Organic isn't everything you want it to be, but if you can't find a product that meets all your criteria, choose organic over a nonorganic product."
DiMatteo says organics is vulnerable when it says something is pesticide-free or healthier than conventional crops without the substantiation to back it up. The unsubstantiated claims, the ones the media will reveal, are made by passionate, but not meticulous, people. The industry needs to speak as one voice, she says, and make the same basic, provable claims.
Media scrutiny "is going to happen, and we welcome it," Scowcroft says. "Scrutiny only makes us better. Examination of claims, production systems, ingredient percentages—bring it on. The hotter the light on organic farming, the better we'll be."
Self-regulation of the organics industry, everyone agrees, is solid. The industry worked with the federal government to pass the NOP, has set up certification standards, and works to make members aware of what claims organics can actually make. DiMatteo thinks the industry has a good PR plan that includes crisis communication. The industry has applied pressure to organic producers to certify their products and be accountable for their labels.
The No. 1 lesson to learn from supplements, Israelsen says, is: "Whatever it takes to assure consumer confidence in organic agriculture, it's worth the cost. Don't wait for the government to regulate you. This is the lesson to be learned from the dietary supplements experience."
Amy Bernard Satterfield teaches journalism at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., and is a freelance writer and writing coach.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 14, 16, 18