Help Wanted: Organic Foods ISO New Marketing Strategy

Published on: 11:28AM Aug 04, 2009

The news from England last week was about as bad as it could be for the organic foods industry:  perhaps the largest and most thorough-ever analysis of the nutritional benefits of organic food found…none.  That is to say, a British government review of hundreds of scientific papers over the decades which have evaluated the nutritional composition of organically-produced food, including dairy, haven’t located any positive differentiations.

For the 98% of U.S. dairy farmers who are not certified organic, this shouldn’t come as a great surprise.  Milk has pretty much always been milk, whether the cows are organic or not.  Organic dairy marketers have been adept at bludgeoning conventional products with the “unholy trinity” of no added antibiotics, pesticides, or synthetic growth hormones, but those are production practices that don’t result in a different product, since conventional milk itself doesn’t have those things, either.

I’ve blogged about this general topic in the past: how just like bottled water, dairy products are increasingly being sold based on sizzle, not the underlying steak itself.  In other words, when you’re marketing a commodity, how do you differentiate something that is nutritionally the same?  You tout dubious “benefits” to those that are willing to pay a hefty premium (organic gallons of milk are still about 100% more expensive than conventional) for such benefits, tenuous though they may be.  And now this UK research takes off the emperor’s clothes.

In the marketplace, it’s good that consumers have choices, just as it’s good that farmers have choices about their production practices.  I’m not a critic of the practice of organic farming, but I have been a critic of the marketing approaches which use unsubstantiated doubts about food safety to make a case for their products.

The recession has hit organic dairy farming hard, as processors cut off their organic milk suppliers during the downturn.  What was thought to be a recession-proof business model is not.  Now that the science modeling has also clarified whether food safety and nutrition are legitimate – or not, as the case turns out to be – marketing distinctions for organic sellers, they’ll be in search of a new model.