National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

All of marketing and consumer perception is little more than a word association game. I say Oreos. You say guilty pleasure.

Boosted by social media accelerants, the ebb and flow of favorable and unfavorable associations is fascinating and challenging for all food marketers. It is the razor’s edge of public opinion.

When organic is on a food label, what do consumers think?

Recently I’ve stumbled upon several articles that point both to the favorable and unfavorable popular reference to organic.

Firstly, the Organic Trade Association issued a news release that proclaimed “Eight in ten U.S. parents report they purchase organic products” with the subhead “Trust in the USDA organic seal reaches an all-time high.”

From this release, we associate organic food with rising consumer popularity. The survey found that produce continues to be the leading category of organic purchases, with 97% of organic buyers saying they had purchased organic fruits or vegetables in the past six months.

Importantly, the survey attempts to answer the question of “why organic?” The OTA survey found that 48% of those who purchase organic food do so because they are “healthier for me and my children. Other reasons were to avoid pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, antibiotics and growth hormones.

A Cornell University study talked about the “halo effect,” or the power of the “organic” label to lead consumers to think the food is healthier even if it is not. The study found that an organic label can also influence perceptions of taste, calories and value, to the good effect for organic marketers. From the Cornell summary:

Even though these foods were all the same, the “organic” label greatly influenced people’s perceptions. The cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories when labeled “organic” and people were willing to pay up to 23.4% more for them. The nutritional aspects of these foods were also greatly biased by the health halo effect.

The “organic” cookies and yogurt were said to taste ‘lower in fat’ than the “regular” variety, and the “organic” cookies and chips were thought to be more nutritious! The label even tricked people’s taste buds: when perceived as “organic”, chips seemed more appetizing and yogurt was judged to be more flavorful. “Regular” cookies were reported to taste better--possibly because people often believe healthy foods are not tasty. All of these foods were exactly the same, but a simple organic label made all the difference!

The great thing about consumer sentiment about organic food is that it appears to be unprompted. Marketers are not making false claims as to nutrition, calories, et cet. But when consumers hear organic, they see “better.” It is what it is; somehow, a heckuva step up from non-organic.

But wait. Just as spinmeisters are polishing the golden halo of organic food, another uncooperative advocacy group is pointing out what they consider flaws in the regulation of organic fruit.

In the past week, I received this e-mail about the use of antibiotics in apple and pear production. From the news release:

Portland, OR—Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, Food & Water Watch, and the Center for Food Safety are urging the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to discontinue the use of antibiotics in organic apple and pear production, citing the potential undermining of the integrity of the organic label and threats to public health and consumer expectations. The NOSB—which meets in Portland, Oregon, this week—will vote on a petition to extend the use of oxytetracyline beyond the existing expiration date of October 21, 2014.

New data from a poll commissioned by Consumer Reports confirms that most consumers do not know that the USDA organic label can be found on foods produced with antibiotics and don’t believe they should be allowed to carry that label if antibiotics were used. Specifically:

• When asked whether antibiotics are used to treat disease in apple and pear trees, two-thirds (68 percent) of people said they don’t know, 17 percent said they don’t think they are, and 15 percent said that antibiotics are used.

• When told that apple and pear trees can be sprayed with antibiotics to treat disease and then asked whether fruit from these trees should be allowed to have an “organic” label, more than half--54 percent--said they don’t think they should be labeled as organic. Only 11 percent of thought they should be labeled as organic, and slightly more than one-third (35 percent) answered that they don’t know if they should be labeled organic.

Some organic apple and pear producers use oxytetracycline and another antibiotic, streptomycin, to manage a disease called fire blight. Antibiotics are not allowed in other types of organic food, including production of organic livestock.

The use of antibiotics is allowed for organic apple and pear production through a petition process to the NOSB, which has already extended the deadlines for this loophole to close several times since the organic label was implemented in 2002. Despite these extensions, there has been limited help for apple and pear growers to find alternative treatments for fire blight, although some alternatives do exist.

For example, U.S. farmers do not apply antibiotics to the organic apples and pears they sell to Europe, where the use of antibiotics is not allowed. The groups urge the USDA to work with the organic apple and pear industry to incentivize viable alternatives for producers and uphold the integrity of the organic label by rejecting the petition to extend the expiration date for oxytetracycline.

This targeted firebombing effort by Consumers Union to cast doubt upon regulation of the organic label as it applies to apples and pears is a note of dissonance to the general favorable buzz about organic food.

Though limited in scope, the Consumers Unions antibiotics on fruit salvo is similar to the dustup  from the study that concluded there are no real differences in the nutritional value of organic food compared to its conventional counterparts.

Though it sometimes appears that organic food has been given a birthright to favorable consumer perception and never-ending growth, this is not the case.

In the United Kingdom, the Soil Association reports that organic sales dipped in 2012, with the seven leading multiple retailers saw their organic sales fall by 3.8%.

While the U.S. organic industry has never had to do much in the past to promote its message and extend its popularity, I think it needs to consider a more aggressive approach.

In the past it has perhaps been to the advantage of organic marketers that consumers impute so many positive attributes to organic food – nutrition, health, environment, lower calories, better taste, more sustainable, et cet. - this aimless strategy of capturing the public’s goodwill is dangerous. Consumers will ultimately be disillusioned if they find organics are less nutritious, have no fewer calories, or fall short of the ideal in even more disappointing ways.

If “organic” means everything, in the end it will mean nothing. By way of a consumer-oriented marketing campaign, the organic industry needs to help consumers fill in the blank, When I say organic, you say …”

Otherwise, they may face a future that goes something like this: When I say organics, they will say “mehhh.”