SAN FRANCISCO — Lately quite a few large food companies have gotten into the organic food market, giving California organic farmers, often the foes of large agriculture businesses, something of a shock.
Companies such as H.J. Heinz Co., General Mills Inc. and Frito Lay are getting into the organic market to take advantage of a new national law that will give organic products a stamp of approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The logo means the item contains no genetically modified material, no irradiation, and few, if any, chemicals or products. The USDA will also be putting similar labels on wines made from organic grapes with little or no sulfites added.
When the law goes into effect Oct. 21, it will be a victory for California farmers, leaders of the organic farming movement, but it will also be one that comes with skepticism.
Some worry that offering more organic foods at cheaper prices will drive out small farmers, and others worry that the government may protect corporate agribusiness rather than smaller operations.
“In early years, we were trying to woo bigger companies and they wouldn’t have anything to do with us,” Warren Weber, who started growing organic lettuce in Northern California in the 1970’s, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Now they’re embracing it, but you’ve got a lot of people who are very hostile to the industrialization of the organic farmer.”
For big food companies the organic market means money. Last year, consumers spent $11 billion on organic foods and the industry has seen several years of near 20 percent growth. Now large companies want a slice of the organic pie.
But attention should be paid to the wide range of companies vying for USDA-sanctioned organic status to see how good they are and how much they embrace farmers trying to do more than milk the latest profitable market, said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
Some organic farmers aren’t opposed to the national law. For one, Kelly Shea the director of Horizon Organic, a multimillion-dollar organic farm, isn’t worried.
“We’re always most critical about that which we love the most,” Shea said. “All it says to me is that we were right all along.”
Still, some farmers are encouraged but skeptical.
“These are good standards that need to be monitored,” Weber said. “If we don’t, big corporations are going to walk away with the whole organic name we created, and we will be out in the cold.”