In late July, 200 organic industry leaders gathered for the Fifth Biennial Organic Business and Regulatory Conference in Berkeley, Calif. Organic experts, government officials, retailers, suppliers, regulators, environmental activists and farmers discussed educating consumers, promoting organics, implementing the Organic Rule mandated by the Organic Foods Production Act and dealing with GMOs in the organic marketplace.
"The level of dynamic exchange here was inspiring," said Bob Scowcroft, Organic Farming Research Foundation's executive director. "This community now runs from small farmers and co-ops on up to $100-million organic food companies, and the billion-dollar players are starting to appear. As we face the pressures of the mass marketplace, we are struggling to maintain values that put farmers, the environment, and consumers' rights before profits."
Numerous conference speakers called for the industry to organize a consumer education campaign. "The rule gives us the opportunity to develop a unified message—based on science we can all agree on—and get it out to the public," said Anthony Zolezzi, CEO of the New Organics Company. Zolezzi added that it's hard to define "organic" in a few words and seconds but that's what resonates with consumers. He used the example of pork, which immediately makes Americans think, "the other white meat."
Gene Kahn, president and CEO of Small Planet Foods and a vice president for General Mills, echoed the need for consumer education. "We have to get a lot better at documenting the human and environmental benefits of organics," he said.
In a Regulatory Roundtable session in which retailers discussed promoting organics in a post-rule marketplace, participants called for "shelf education." But the retailers acknowledged that before they begin educating the consumer about organic products, store staff—who are often transient—must first have a clear understanding of organics.
Lisa Bell, currently the principal of Crescendo Communications, urged the industry to build a defense against organic critics and be prepared for attacks after the implementation of the rule. Bell shared lessons learned as public relations counselor to Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, during her February 2000 with John Stossel of ABC News.
Oliver Sonnois, vice president of strategy and development for Acirca, reported that one of the main reasons people are not buying organic is that they believe it's too expensive. In response, Kevin Edberg, executive director of Cooperative Development Services, the parent organization of the Organic Alliance, said, "In a post-rule marketplace, the key to continued growth of the organic industry is to continuously re-embrace its values and educate old and new customers that organics is not solely a discussion of price, value and market share."
Throughout the conference, participants cited concerns about GMOs. They called for clear labeling of GMO products and the ability to make reasonable claims on organic labels. Despite consumer concern, Drake University law professor Neil Hamilton outlined how current U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations essentially prohibit GMO-free claims, because it's implied that such products are different from and possibly superior to those with GM ingredients.
"Organic growers, processors and manufacturers are concerned about how these new foods impact the health of the ecosystem and the people consuming them," said Iowa farmer and OFRF President Ron Rosmann. "OFRF believes that the profitability of farming and food security will improve without genetic engineering if farmers and researchers put more effort toward developing ecologically sustainable systems."
For more information on the conference and links to PowerPoint files of the presentations, visit www.ofrf.org.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 5