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Are Newman's Own Organics and Other Companies Misleading Consumers with the Word 'Organic'?

Just because 'organic' is in the name, don't be fooled by the ingredients.

Some food companies have found a way to cast their processed foods as organic without going through the inconvenience of using certified organic ingredients in their products. By incorporating "organic" into their names, these companies have been able to display the magic word on the packaging of food products that are not in fact certified organic.

This deception has recently been called out by the Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group, which has filed complaints with the National Organic Standards Board and Federal Trade Commission.

The alleged infractions run the spectrum from blatant misrepresentation, in the case of Oskri Organics, to stretching the limits of evolving definitions of organic, in the case of a surprise entry in Cornucopia's list of shame: the much-loved Newman's Own Organics.

Some of Oskri Organics' products contain no certified organic ingredients at all. Nonetheless, the company has been able to display the money word front and center on its packaging, simply because it's part of the company's name. Organic Bistro sells frozen entrees made with organic vegetables, grains and oils, but many of the meals also include non-organic chicken and turkey. A glance at the ingredient list would convince most people that Organic Bistro meals are cleaner and probably healthier than most other frozen food entrées out there. But of all the ingredients, meat is arguably the most important in terms of human and environmental health. Not coincidentally, meat would also account for the lion's share of the cost of using organic ingredients.

The letter and spirit of organic law say the only permissible reason for using non-organic ingredients in certified organic processed food is if that ingredient is not available in certified organic form.

"There is certainly no shortage of organic chicken or organic turkey," says Cornucopia's Mark Kastel. "By using conventional ingredients to cut costs, yet displaying the word 'organic' so prominently in their packages, Organic Bistro is unfairly competing with truly organic companies that commit to sourcing organic meat."

It's also unfair to consumers who see the name Organic Bistro and assume the chicken dinner in the box is organic. One of the driving forces behind the creation of USDA's National Organic Program was the economic interest of corporate food companies that wanted to cash in on the tremendous consumer demand for organic food. These corporations wanted to know what they had to do in order to sell their food as organic. After a lengthy period of wrangling over the rules, USDA organic seals were finally placed on the products that earned organic certification.

Since those lines were drawn, they've been vigorously contested. Much of the friction has been over corporate attempts to weaken the laws and make it cheaper to certify products as organic. But end-runs around certification standards via strategic company names are a dangerous precedent that until now has slipped through the regulatory cracks.

Newman's Own Inc., the parent company of Newman's Own Organics, has an enigmatic slogan plastered at the top center of its Web page. It reads: "Shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good."

I was going to offer a free T-shirt to whoever could parse the meaning of this tagline, but a company spokesperson got back to me and explained that it refers to exploiting the famous Newman name to sell products for money that is given to charity -- amounting to more than $285 million since 1982.

According to Cornucopia, Newman's Own Organics -- now a separate company -- seems to be shamelessly exploiting the word "organic" to help sell products that are not, in fact, certified organic.

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