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Horizon Organic to consumers: sewage sludge is good for you!

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Already plagued for falling prices and other woes, the organic food industry is now confronting 800-pound gorilla Dean Food’s decision to create a new line of “natural” yogurts and milks through its subsidiary, Horizon Foods. For anyone vaguely familiar with advertising claims, “natural” and “healthy” are big sellers, regardless of the fact that the terms are barely regulated in the food market and are largely meaningless.

The threat — which is considerable — is that this move will encourage a shift of organic dollars, the benefits of organic farming and a pretty tight USDA regulatory system toward a Wild West free for all: the ambiguous abyss called “natural.”

The feds (aka the USDA and FDA) have respectfully declined to define “natural” except for a very narrow class of products. And so Dean Foods will fill that void with their own: natural Dean products will be those “produced without added hormones, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup.” Well, that’s reassuring.

Claims for natural meat and poultry only are defined and regulated by the USDA: for meat and poultry to be labeled “natural” it must be minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product). The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as ‘no added colorings or artificial ingredients’ or ‘minimally processed’). But this is where clarity disappears.

Dean’s new “natural” yogurts and milk can — and will — come from dairy cows that have eaten pesticide laden feed such as corn and soy, antibiotics, pig and chicken byproducts, and sewage sludge. The only bad boy from the list of conventional animal feed that Dean has prohibited is hormones. So what’s a little sewage sludge and pesticide residue going to do to your kid anyhow?

Debates rage on whether organic food is more nutritionally complete or “better” for the consumer. Opinions vary considerably but even the EPA itself admits that children are particularly susceptible to pesticides for many reasons:

The Score:

1) The International Dairy Foods Association and Grocery Manufacturers Association don’t want a definition of natural (just read their letter to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from March 2, 2007).

2) Consumers responding to the recent Shelton Group Survey trust natural over organic (note to organic marketers: Get working!).

3) The FDA will not engage in rule making on “natural” advertising claims due to “resource limitations and other agency priorities.”

4) The new Horizon products are aimed at toddlers and children (who are particularly at risk for pesticide exposure).

5) Oh, and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology concedes that milk is the number 1 cause of food allergies in children.

So, all you confused consumers out there, remember this: ATTENTION ALL SHOPPERS: Natural = pesticides.

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