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Flimsy Reporting On Organics’
Health Benefits

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 17, 2007

The Wall Street Journal is one of the Pundit’s favorite newspapers. However, we are partial to the Editorial and Op-Ed pages, which have different editors than the news pages. As far as the regular newspaper goes, those editors should be ashamed of themselves.

In the January 16, 2007 issue, The Wall Street Journal published an article entitled When Buying Organic Makes Sense — and When It Doesn’t. The Pundit is tempted to write a piece regarding what is wrong with the article’s analysis regarding fresh produce — but we did that already!

Back in June of 2006, NBC’s Today show did a segment with nutritionist Joy Bauer called, Organic Food: Is it Worth the Extra Money? My critique to that segment would be remarkably identical to a critique of what the WSJ just published. You can read the Pundit’s take on the piece right here.

Basically, the point is that there is ZERO research that shows human health is enhanced by consuming organic produce as opposed to conventionally grown produce.

Take a look at what Joy Bauer and The Wall Street Journal each came up with when it comes to buying or not buying organic produce:

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL “TO BUY” ORGANIC PRODUCE LIST: Apples, peaches, bell peppers, strawberries, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, potatoes, carrots

JOY BAUER’S “DIRTY DOZEN” MUST-BUY ORGANIC FOODS:Apples, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, bell peppers, celery, potatoes, spinach

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL “NOT TO BUY” LIST: Broccoli, bananas, frozen sweet peas, frozen corn, asparagus, avocados, onions

JOY BAUER’S “NO NEED TO GO ORGANIC” WITH THESE FOODS: Bananas, kiwi, mangos, papaya, pineapples, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, onions, peas

Although both articles mention the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., which is the source for the list, The Wall Street Journal actually has the nerve to credit “WSJ Research” for the list.

The Wall Street Journal article is careful to state that “…organic food isn’t necessarily more healthful than conventionally produced food…”

And that:

“In terms of nutrition, some studies, some of which are funded by the organic-food industry, have found higher levels of antioxidants and other nutrients in organically grown corn, strawberries, peaches, tomatoes and other produce.

But even if organic produce does have more antioxidants, it’s not clear that they offer nutrition benefits to humans, says Alyson Mitchell, associate professor and food chemist at the University of California, Davis, who has conducted some of the studies.”

They give token quotes to a couple of produce association executives:

“The levels of pesticides in the produce on the EWG’s list are ‘orders of magnitude’ below those levels deemed safe by the EPA and the USDA after years and years of study,” says Shannon Schaffer, a spokesman for the U.S. Apple Association, a trade association for apple growers, shippers and packers in Vienna, Va.

and

Conventional produce is “perfectly safe,” says Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland, Fla., which represents 250 growers of organic and conventional produce, and its purchase is “a personal decision by individual consumers.”

The real problem with the article that The Wall Street Journal featured is that it gives into people’s prejudices. It features lines like this:

Generally, say organic experts, it makes the most sense to buy organic versions of foods that you — and especially your growing children — eat a lot of.

First of all, what is an “organic expert” and do they have special knowledge about human physiology? And what does it mean “most sense” — is it sensible or not?

The article panders. The Wall Street Journal piece goes on to talk about meat, seafood, dairy products and packaged foods and when it comes to meat, for example, the article states:

“Organic may be worth buying if you are concerned about antibiotic use.”

But of course, in an article entitled “When Buying Organic Makes Sense — and When It Doesn’t,” the question is: Should you be concerned with antibiotic use in meat? This piece certainly won’t tell you that.

It also accepts as a given that organic growing is always better for the environment — a question we examined here.

The article also doesn’t address the national debate on what organic really means, which we dealt with here.

The real lesson of this piece is how much room there is in the produce industry for product segmentation. The real reason many people buy organic is because they want to buy the best — the best for their babies, for their own health, for the environment. Very few produce brands segment themselves in that way.

It is interesting: When Wal-Mart started its perishable food operations, it approached Boar’s Head but Boar’s Head wouldn’t sell to Wal-Mart. It didn’t want to be associated with a “down-scale” retailer; it didn’t want a discounter to disrupt its other trade relations.

In other words, Boar’s Head viewed its brand as meaning something about quality and upscale and acted as Ralph Lauren would act in refusing to sell Wal-Mart. Yet no major produce brand responded in that way.

Ironically the higher price of organic is intrinsic to its appeal. It adds plausibility to the claim that this product is superior.

There are a very small number of people who have studied organic standards and made a decision based on a rational analysis of the facts. The vast majority of purchases are made for other reasons.

In those “other reasons” can be found many an opportunity for the thoughtful entrepreneur.

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