…and other process-verified claims will take precedence. The muckety-mucks behind organic activism, like the Cornucopia Institute, among others, are in the process of cutting off their own noses to spite their collective faces. , they will succeed in doing one thing – convincing consumers they can’t trust claims about organic food; at the very least, the average consumer will be confused enough by the competing claims and accusations that the organic label will be meaningless. At its best, the label and its USDA backing add value to a niche product. At its potential worst, it is a worthless mark attempting to extort a premium price to offset the costs of an antiquated production system. The devil herein is the desire by some marketers to turn their own niche branding into the innuendo that standard-fare “commodity” products with traditional modern production processes are somehow inferior, less nutritious, or perhaps hazardous to one’s health. None of which is true, obviously, but all of which are insinuated by the high-minded idealists in the elite echelons of the organic universe.
To whit, these elites have made the mistake of mixing their missions to the detriment of a successful strategy. The real thrust of this issues isn’t whether or not Aurora obeyed the USDA organic protocols or not. That convenient issue is a red herring to obfuscate the real intent of the aforementioned muckety-mucks: to forbid large-scale producers from benefiting from the organic label and its potential premium price. Because these elitists are bent on removing any large-scale producer from the organic arena, they’re losing sight of two great truths in marketing: First, that a rising tide raises all ships, and second, that you can’t sell a product without shelf space. By expending so much effort on ridding the industry of Aurora and its cohort, the folks at Cornucopia and company are missing the fact that having Aurora and its retail partners pushing organic milk benefits the entire organic industry. Look at it this way: if a company wants to sell a product, it will advertise it and promote it to the consumer. In the case of milk, the average consumer isn’t necessarily looking at a particular brand or product, because “milk is milk” to a large portion of the populace. Let’s assume, however, that the marketing and promotion of organic milk in specific takes hold with a significant portion of that consuming public; the result is a rise in sales of organic milk in general. Why? Because the consumer isn’t nearly as concerned with whose organic milk they buy as they are that they’re buying organic milk at all, all producers marketing organic milk benefit from the resulting demand. By removing an Aurora (or any other company fitting the above description), the industry is also removing that company’s marketing dollars and clout with the retail universe, to the detriment of all the producers who would have otherwise benefited from that company’s demand generation activities. The second point, that a marketer needs shelf space to sell his product, should be self-evident here. If I’m a big-box retailer and the organic industry takes me to court and sues me for a significant portion of my livelihood, I’ll be a whole lot less likely to want to carry their products in general, and woe be to any specific companies supporting the suit against me. By taking aim at the retailers, these activists are potentially laying ruin to the predominant link between the processor and the consumer. While some farmers and/or processors may sell directly to consumers, this is certainly not the rule for the vast majority of producers, as it is not necessarily cost-effective, realistic, or practical for many if not most.
So to the other assertion I made at the top of the page: “other process-verified claims will take precedence.” We’re already seeing this trend take root. Claims like “locally produced” are becoming more and more powerful with consumers all the time. Media-hyped food recall scares and the threat of tainted Chinese imports are giving more and more Americans incentive to care about where their food comes from, perhaps for the first time in their lives. The proportion of Americans interested in “organic” or “all-natural” foods has always been relatively small, but the percentage of citizens interested in knowing that their dinner came from a local family farm with all the inherent wholesomeness and warm/fuzzy emotional attachment is growing with each study or survey done on the subject. Divesting the “organic brand” of its value and consumer appeal by throwing dung at the major industry marketers will only drive consumers away from the brand and toward locally branded products.
Ironically, this may very well be in the best interest of producers not tied to the near-religious ideology of the organic elitists. The production gap between modern genetics and organic cultivars will continue to widen, almost exponentially with many of the advances in the R and D pipeline. If a producer should decide to shed the millstone of lower production in an organic system and instead focus on a locally produced marketing strategy, he may very well find greater overall profitability through a niche premium combined with higher productivity. Certainly this will be a hard decision to make, given the tremendous investment of time and money (through lost productivity) to become certified organic, but it is a decision many will, and should, consider. This will not be the right decision for all, as there will certainly remain at least some demand for organic products for the foreseeable future.
So what is the bottom line? My advice to organic producers is simple: abandon the fanatics in the elite inner-circle of your industry. The fundamentalists harping and haranguing the large producers and mass retailers are no friend to your industry. Their single-minded approach to policy will only serve to weaken your value to the consumer. Focus instead on helping USDA strengthen its regulatory protocols, insuring that offenders like Aurora are either punished or brought into compliance, and move on. Be thankful there are companies and organizations larger than yourself investing money into research, development, marketing, and advertising that you can benefit from, if even indirectly. And most importantly, be thankful you have a consumer audience who wants your product… at least for now.