Anger at Horizon 'Natural' Designation

Last Updated Nov 10, 2009 12:46 PM EST

After years of rapid growth, the demand for organic products is stagnating. Horizon Organic, one of the country's biggest players in organic milk, is responding by launching its first non-certified organic products, which it will market as "natural."

Natural is a meaningless term, as far as official regulations go, and supporters of organic farming are furious with Horizon and its parent company, Dean Foods.

"This move by Dean Foods comes at a time when organic dairy farmers around the country are in financial crisis due to a glut of milk," said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. "Responsible participants in this industry are using their marketing strength to ramp up organic demand. Dean has instead chosen to profiteer at the expense of the hard-working family farmers who have built this industry."
Horizon's strategy could be a smart one, if more than a little bit slimy. A recent survey by the Shelton Group suggested that consumers have more trust in foods labeled 'natural' than in foods labeled 'organic.' The perception is that 'organic' is just an "unregulated marketing buzzword," according to Suzanne Shelton, the Shelton Group's president. "In reality, the opposite is true: 'Natural' is the unregulated word."

Not that the organic standard is perfect or without controversy. The Washington Post reported recently that the U.S. Department of Agriculture grants its "USDA Organic" seal to products containing all sorts of synthetic ingredients, and there is little oversight over private certifiers.

But at least there's something. Companies can slap 'natural' on any product they want to. And regardless of how you feel about whether organic or natural products are worth it or not, it seems a no-brainer that if customers choose to pay extra for food that's grown in a certain manner, there should be some mechanism for preventing fraud and ensuring that people truly get what they pay for.

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  • Katherine Glover