Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organic industry looks in mirror

The latest news on the organic food industry hasn't been positive, and that's causing a good deal of internal industry reflection.

The most immediate news was the consent agreement Aurora Organic Dairy sealed with the Department of Agriculture, settling 14 alleged violations of organic regulations.

I've talked with several organic industry veterans who are upset that this news casts such a negative light on the industry.

But they also know the news wasn't fabricated, indeed that the complaints on the operation had been swirling for so long that it was a crisis waiting to happen.

Some are upset with Cornucopia Institute, the advocacy group that brought attention to this situation. But while Cornucopia has certainly been a catalyst, the USDA ultimately looked into the allegations and brought down the hammer.

In the context of other simmering issues — concerns about organic food from China, the rise of local food and diminution of organic, the controversies about additives in organic food — one wonders, is the industry is suffering from a minor injury or a chronic disease?

Before I answer that question, it must be understood that the organic "community" is made of many components, with different views of what organic food should be. Continual conflict is endemic to the landscape. The nuances of these conflicts are usually lost on the bulk of consumers buying organic food, if they even know they exist at all.

The organic food industry continues to grow at around 20 percent a year, extending its reach into the mainstream and bringing in new customers. So far, these sparring matches don't seem to be undermining growth. However, with the bad news associated with the Aurora situation, one can only wonder if some consumers are concluding that organic food isn't worth it.

It's curious that no major company or industry association has taken it upon themselves to enter this fray and state their view. Is this a sign that the industry wants this all to go away? That they want these disputes settled quietly, in house? One thing is clear: media attention is here to stay, as are the advocates, the critics, and the entire smorgasbord of news, opinion and rants that industry watchers are greeted with each day.

The problems, the conflicts, are not going away. And the sooner prominent people in the industry realize that, the sooner they may begin to speak out and add another level to the debate.

Or maybe not. Maybe they're content to let this entire cacophony of voices control the fate of the organic industry as it careens towards its future.

TAGS: Archive News
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