Label Watch: Annie’s Homegrown and the “it’s-too-hard-to-find-organic-ingredients” defense

organicseal.jpgThis post was revised after publication where indicated to clarify material and correct some erroneous assertions, in response to a comment by Annie's CEO John Foraker, below.

On Monday the New York Times reported, as plenty have elsewhere, that the USDA is poised to allow 38 non-organically grown ingredients as exceptions in certified organic food when their organic counterparts are unavailable. [Addition:] "Organic, Inc." author Sam Fromartz, blogging over at Chews Wise, goes "deep-and-dirty" into USDA organic regulations to explain how up until now, a product can only be labeled organic if 95% of the ingredients are in fact organic; the remaining 5% could include non-organic ingredients as long as they're approved by the National Organic Standards Board and put on the so-called National List by the USDA. To make a long story short, organic certifiers were able to exercise some leeway in granting exceptions on an individual basis to ingredients under certain circumstances, but the USDA wants producers to persuade it that such ingredients deserve to be on the list or to stop using them, effective June 8.

Among the most objectionable items under consideration: conventionally grown hops for organic beer (thanks to whining from Anheuser-Busch, which says supply is too limited — or else doesn't want to pay the premium) and casings from the intestines of factory-farm pigs and cows to contain organically raised sausage meat.

That most of the rest of the other ingredients are "natural" colors and flavors used in processed food has not escaped skeptics. The reason that companies are asking for exceptions is that the organically grown supply of things like elderberry juice (for turning foods red or purple) falls far short of what Big Organic needs to meet skyrocketing demand.

Annatto, one of the ingredients on the USDA's list, provides an illuminating example of what's wrong with the motivations behind approving these exceptions.

annatto.jpg Annatto is a natural food coloring derived from the reddish pulp surrounding the seed pods of Bixa orellana, also known as achiote, which grows in tropical zones. John Foraker, CEO of Annie’s Homegrown company — famous makers of boxed pasta products for kids — argued in his change-the-rules petition letter to the USDA that “Organic annatto is not readily available and does not deliver the same cheese color. Making orange colored macaroni and cheese is an important element of our offering. Without annatto, our macaroni-and-cheese products would be white” (as quoted in the Times; the USDA does not seem to have posted the comments it's received on this change, as it often does).

annies_orgmac.jpg While I'm skeptical that conventional annatto can deliver a brighter hue than organic, that's not important here. What is: Annie's currently offers several certified organic versions of pasta shells with cheese — both white AND orange. The orange ones use annatto extract. The white ones don't. They are not "100% Certified Organic," but they get to use the organic seal because they meet USDA met the USDA's then-requirements of being made with 95-100% organic ingredients. Annie's also sells a full line of "totally natural" mac-n-cheese, both white and orange; same difference.

Bernie the iconic Annie's rabbit actually talks on the company's blog about the annatto seed and offers this interesting comment: "And although we agree everyone should have a little more color in their lives, we must stand up for our beloved Organic Shells & WHITE Cheddar (aka Purple Box)…it’s [sic] deliciousness will prove that white, too, is just as acceptable in the world of mac ‘n cheese."

Guess Bernie the bunny didn't get copied on Foraker's memo to the USDA. White is apparently less desirable to consumers than the familiar orange color for mac-n-cheese.

Ethicurean readers may recall that in January 2007, Salon ran a rather funny, very snarky attack on Annie's Homegrown Macaroni & Cheese, titled "The Bunny vs. the Blue Box," ridiculing its health claims and telling parents that making their own was as fast and healthier. Annie's CEO Foraker attempted damage control in the comments section of that Salon article and elsewhere. On the Megnut blog, he wrote that:

[S]peaking of healthy, Annie’s has offered a certified organic line since 1998, not because we “felt the gentle wind of organics.” Rather, we honestly believe organic agriculture practices and products are better for us and better for the earth. We’re pretty proud of the fact that we’ve recently transitioned all of the pasta in our natural line to certified organic. We see this as a responsible step toward offering an even better product for consumers and for the environment.

While we would have liked to offer all organic ingredients from the start, the supply simply wasn’t available from the sources we value. We care a great deal about how we source our ingredients and so we choose family farmers as those who grow our wheat and produce our cheese.

What's that sound? The chimes of cognitive dissonance.

Organically grown annatto is in fact available, albeit much more expensive than the other kind. (Web searching found organic whole seeds from Indonesia to be $8 per pound; non-organic to be $2.62 per pound.) Perhaps Annie's uses so much annatto it would exhaust the world's organically grown supply if it tried. Acquired by the privately held, investor-controlled holding company Homegrown Naturals in 2005 for an undisclosed sum, Annie's does not publicize its revenues; BrandWeek cited 2005 sales as $45 million.

Annie's home page claims its products are "good for you and good for the planet" and that the company was "founded with the mission to support the environment and our communities." Yet here it is, joining Anheuser-Busch in asking for the easy way out.

If Foraker wants customers to believe his company walks its talk, Annie's had many other options. The company is certainly big enough to work on increasing the supply of its organic ingredients — perhaps paying for, or aiding with, the paperwork for the certification process, which small non-U.S. growers find daunting. Or, it could sell even more of its white, "just as acceptable" mac-n-cheese. Or it could continue to sell millions of boxes of its orange mac-n-cheese under their current organic label, allowed for those made with 95-100% organic ingredients under the USDA's "Made with Organic Ingredients" label, which requires that 70% of a product's ingredients be organic and the rest can be non-organic agricultural ingredients.

[Paragraph revised] In general, the 38 additions to the National List seem like easy, cheesy ways out for processed-food companies to continue to profit off the higher prices consumers are willing to pay for food with the label without themselves paying higher prices for certain ingredients, or having to work to increase their supply. It reminds me somewhat of No Child Left Behind: not enough kids passing the standardized tests? Well, the tests are obviously just too hard — let's make them easier. It marks the start of a slippery slope for standards, the same one that in 2002 saw the USDA almost allow a Georgia poultry producer to market its chicken as organically produced, even though the birds ate conventional feed laced with antibiotics and pesticides. The reason for the exception? Organic feed cost the producer twice as much.

There's pretty much no stopping this change in the acceptable ingredients list now, although the Organic Consumer Association has a letter you can still send electronically. Nope, afraid I can only leave you with the usual advice: vote with your forks, for food from farmers or small companies you trust, who care about preserving the integrity of the practices and philosophy that built the organic label — not just getting the green-and-white seal itself.

8 Responsesto “Label Watch: Annie’s Homegrown and the “it’s-too-hard-to-find-organic-ingredients” defense”

  1. John Foraker, CEO, Annie's, Inc. says:

    DairyQueen,

    I just read your posting. I appreciate your passion around both this issue and the integrity of the organic regulations and organic movement, because I share it.

    I would like to set the record straight. We are in no way seeking to undermine the organic standards. The organic standards are being tightened in this process, and we support that! The USDA previously offered a blanket exemption for non-organic ingredients, like annatto, to be used in Certified Organic products when the ingredient is not commercially available in organic form. Recent changes in the organic guidelines (due to the Harvey lawsuit) now require manufacturers like us to get specific USDA pre-approval for any trace ingredient which is natural, but not organic, in a product that is Certified Organic at the 95% level. Approval for these trace ingredients will only be granted when there is no viable organic alternative for the ingredient.

    We have been making organic mac & cheese colored with annatto since 1998, and have been completely in compliance with the letter, and spirit of the organic National Organic Program guidelines. The product in question, Organic Shells and Real Aged Cheddar, is Certified Organic at the 95% level (it’s actually 99.4% organic), and always has been. The only non-organic ingredient is the natural color derived from annatto seed, a plant used by native cultures throughout history, and widely used to add color to natural and organic products. My letter to the USDA did not, as you suggest, request an exemption to allow us to use a “100% Organic” label; rather, it requested that annatto be added to the list of specifically pre-approved ingredients so that our product can continue to be legally labeled “Certified Organic” at the 95% level, as it has been since introduction to market.

    If we could find organic annatto, in the quantity, quality, and efficacy we need, we would use it, even if it were more expensive. We have been searching and trying to qualify a source for a long time. I am sure we will eventually succeed. However, while we look, we need to ensure our ability to remain within the law; that is why I wrote the letter to the USDA, to ensure that annatto was not overlooked in the process.

    You may believe, and there are certainly others that agree, that there is no place for colored Mac & cheese. Why not just offer white? Well, we do offer white and it is very popular. However, there are millions of kids in America that have been convinced by decades of advertising from a large company that makes macaroni and cheese that shall remain nameless, that Mac and cheese should be orange/yellow. Overcoming that is difficult. In fact, we received thousands of letters from consumers asking us for an orange mac & cheese product. So, we bridge to give these kids and their parents a path to organic that they will accept, and adopt into their everyday life. The more consumers we bring into the organic tent, the better off we and the planet will be.

    Annie’s has long been a leader in converting consumers and the mainstream food companies toward more organic products. I am proud that there are now 16,000 acres of precious farmland that are now growing wheat for Annie’s organically, rather than through the unsustainable practices of conventional farming. This is just one example. We are part of the solution, not the problem.

    If you are interested, there is a detailed FAQ on our website where you can find additional information on this subject. The link is: http://www.annies.com/faqs/annatto_organic_standards.htm

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond in this forum.

    John Foraker, CEO
    Annie's, Inc.
    564 Gateway Drive
    Napa, CA. 94558
    (707) 254-3700 x118
    (707) 259-0387 FAX
    jfor...@annies.com

  2. DairyQueen says:

    Mr. Foraker -- Thanks for taking the time to respond in such detail, and so civilly, given that I did in fact misconstrue the necessity behind Annie's petition to use non-organic annatto. I will add a clarification to the post momentarily. Unfortunately I did not run across the FAQ about annatto that you reference when first writing the post, but as I still can't find a link to it on the site, you might want to make that more prominent.

    I actually do believe in the "big tent" philosophy of organic/sustainable food, and that there's a place for certified organic mac-n-cheese, whether it's orange or white. Is it "better" than most alternatives? Probably. But when the bar is set so low, you don't really get any kudos just for clearing it.

    Seems to me that you're stuck in the same position as other successful "natural foods" companies, like Whole Foods. You're expected to lead. Wouldn't it be a good thing if Annie's took an active role in increasing the supply of organic annatto, if it's that critical an ingredient to your success? That would make you really part of the solution.

    Respectfully,
    Bonnie Powell, aka Dairy Queen

    P.S. Does organic annatto really "not deliver the same cheese color"?

  3. John Foraker says:

    The problem with organic annatto is similar to the challenge companies like us face on a number of specialized ingredients: getting the right specification, and getting the right quantity from a supplier that is certified and that can be trusted. We are not alone in this challenge. We spend lots of time and effort working with suppliers to expand their organic production to meet the needs of a growing market.

    We will keep at it!

    John

  4. Eating Green says:

    Why don't people just add a little turmeric or food coloring to the white mac n cheese if their kids insist it? Or better yet, take the 2 minutes to educate your children that cheese is not naturally orange, that all cheese is made from milk, which is white, and not orange. Then you'd all be done with it...

  5. deliberately says:

    DairyQueen: I continue to sincerely enjoy and derive great value out of your writing on The Ethicurean. This back-and-forth is extremely valuable in our efforts to lower the level of cognitive dissonance between consumers and producers. I have for a long time now been a huge proponent of the idea that corporations respond to demand, and that to expect the corporate world to lead toward a more sustainable future is an untenable idea when demand dictates otherwise. While I do believe Annie's is commendable in the greater sphere of processed foods, there is no question that the work is not yet done. Your words re-align corporate vision with actual demand and helps to ensure that the folks in the boardroom keep their eyes on the consumer's true desires. Thanks for the insights!

  6. I haven't studied the organic rules in detail, so perhaps this common sense idea is already in the rules: why not allow the manufacturer to specify which ingredients are always organic, which are sometimes organic, and which are never organic? The manufacturer would put a * or + or ^ next to each ingredient, and then a total at the bottom of the label like this:

    Organic and non-organic content (by weight):
    50% organic
    25% sometimes organic
    25% non-organic

    A bit of rounding would be necessary to prevent secret formulas from being divulged, like a +/- 5% accuracy limit. Consumers would then know the upper and lower bounds of that products organic content. The made up example above is 50-75% organic, but I would look at it as 50% organic, 50% non-organic. Things like beer would be tricky, however, because most of the mass is water.

    Just a crazy idea from an engineer...

  7. John Foraker says:

    Deliberately,

    You are right. Our work at Annie's is not done. It probably never will be. The way I look at it, the road to higher ground in product is a journey, not a destination. We have got to as an industry continue to raise the bar. Organic is not enough, we need to go beyond the USDA definition of organic and strive for more. More local, more sustainable, more ethical. The bar is ever rising as it should be. Consumers are learning more and more about organic, and as they do we need to move with them. We are doing as much as we can, sourcing from smaller more sustainable producers, family farmers, using ever better vegetable inks on our packaging, etc.We at Annie's are enjoying the journey.

    Thanks

    JF

    JF

  8. george says:

    I will like to know more about the product as it can be found in large quantities in my country.