Price tag continues to be most important ‘label’

Before the USDA took the organic program under its wing 11 years ago, consumers could only wonder what that term meant. Every farmer and processor had a different take on exactly what “organic” food was.

Only after the USDA narrowly defined the term did organic become the gold standard of food certification in the U.S. Today about 13,000 of the 2.2 million U.S. farmers are certified organic.

But other producers are leaving the fold and coming up with their own terminology for the food they grow. This includes such designations as Certified Naturally Grown, a grassroots movement in which producers follow organic standards but choose to skip the costly certification inspections and paperwork required by the USDA. For example, a CNG grower is inspected by another CNG grower at no cost.

In other words, they do organic, but they don’t jump through the hoops or pay the price. CNG sees itself as well-suited for small-scale direct market growers who do not have the cash flow of many larger organic growers who can afford full organic certification.

This grates on some within the organic movement who say it dilutes the USDA organic program by decreasing its numbers and its overall impact.

We disagree. Consumers are smart enough to discern among the many options that are available to them at the local farmers’ markets and grocery stores. The green “organic” label means just that. The farm that produced the food has been certified under the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Similarly, the CNG means just that. The farmer follows organic practices but chooses to get inspected differently — and at a lower cost.

Other labels are equally informative for consumers, many of whom are interested in knowing how their food was grown.

We’ve previously written about such certifications as “Salmon Safe” and “sustainable.” As long as they are adequately explained to consumers, they should be encouraged. They should also be optional for growers and processors and not part of a government mandate.

The marketplace is an ever-changing landscape. What sells now may not sell five or 10 years from now. What consumers like now may completely change in the future.

That’s why labels of all types may come and go.

The consumer is king. If consumers demand food produced a certain way they will vote with their pocketbooks. If consumers don’t want a certain food, they won’t buy it.

But the bottom line is that most consumers are most interested in another label — the price tag. A survey by the Nielsen Co. showed that price is the No. 1 factor for food consumers around the world. Price rates higher than health considerations, labeling — anything — everywhere on the planet. Consumers in Europe, the U.S., South America, Asia and elsewhere make most of their purchasing decisions based on price.

That only serves to illustrate the economic reality of the marketplace. Different certifications will come with different price points. Generally speaking, certified organic food costs more than conventionally raised food.

As the debate over labels and certification continues, all parties need to remember the real driver for most consumers: price.

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