This paper explores the ethical issues concerning the certification of organic food products. Consumers have a higher tendency to purchase food products labeled as organic due to their concern for the environment and other purposes intended by organic foods. As such, the organic food market has seen an increasing growth trend in sales. However, it has been uncovered that many companies that produce supposed organic foods do not truly conduct their production process as fittingly as proponents of organic food intended. In this case, consumers are not getting what they bargained for when buying organic foods. Instead organic food labels have become a marketing device for food companies. This paper critically examine if this type of advertising misleads the consumer and poses an ethical dilemma. Introduction
In the past twenty years, with research and increased knowledge, consumers are more aware of the source of the food they buy. In particular, organic certified food products have became more popular and essential to their diet. Such certification for food has been implanted due to ethical concerns, ranging from health to environment to food modification issues, such that consumers can make more informed choices. However, the commercial success and ease of attaining the certifications have raised critical eyebrows – are they really resolving the concerns they were meant to, or are they a new set of ethical dilemmas? This paper aims to look at the extent to which organic food certification is used as a marketing tool and in turn the ethical concerns rose. Organic Certification for Food
The true intent of organic foods is to produce fruits and vegetables, and raise livestock in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. This includes minimal usage of resources, maintaining the fertility of the soil used and treating the livestock animals without cruelty by providing them with reasonable living and growing conditions. Increased concerns about global warming in turn boosted the focus on organic produce. Hence, consumers of organic foods feel that they are doing a part for environmental sustenance as well as protecting themselves from hazards of non-organic foods such as genetically modified foods and produce sprayed with chemical pesticides. Since the United States Department of Agriculture established legal standards for organic foods in 2002, the market has grown from an $8billion to $30billon business. Given the nature of organic food production, experts in the field are doubtful about the industry’s ability to meet the growing demands.
It has been noticed that many of those so-called certified organic foods fail to meet their purpose despite meeting labeling requirements, which are, the method of production, substances used in production and authorization by certified agent. These are a set of basic standards that can be manipulated by farm owners. Many farms operated by multi-national companies still use systems that are sufficient to meet the standard necessitated to be organic, but not the original intention of organic foods. For example, a Californian farm produces certified organic tomatoes using high irrigation, which strictly, defeats the main intention of being organic. What consumers fail to realize is that, the certification of organic is not as truly organic they deem, given the lenient standards. Thus, sale of such organic foods are based on the certification the foods receive and not because they are organic as consumers perceive it to be.
On the other hand, it can be argued that such certification regulators has taken reasonable steps to ensure that corporations do not casually use the word ‘organic’ to attract consumers. According to the USDA standards, there are a variety of ways with which foods can be classified as organic: 100% organic (all ingredients are from organic sources), organic or made with organic ingredients. Each of these has a varying degree of organic content so that consumers are able to purchase products with a better understanding of the extent of it being organic. Yet studies show that as long as consumers see the word organic in the label or display of the agricultural product, they have a higher tendency to buy it. Although companies may claim that they have followed labeling and advertising standards and are thus not liable to whether customers are deceived by their placement of the word organic, the degree of consumers’ reliance on word’s placement shows that actions ought to be taken to inform stakeholders more reliably. Organic Meat, Poultry and Eggs
Consumers upset about the humane treatment of animals will especially purchase organic animal products, assuming that the organic certification is sufficient to appease their worries. However achieving the bare minimum standard accredits the organic certification from many regulators for many large livestock farms. For example, organic poultry farms are meant to have free-ranging chickens that are not cooped up in cages, but roaming around their natural environment, yet many of these ‘so-called’ farms interpret this as not having chickens in cages. They still pack thousands of birds into a confined space, stepping over each other’s carcasses and excrement. Other livestock receive similar treatment despite being from organic farms. The truly organic farms are usually small local farms that do not have the capacity to produce and distribute beyond their own state. Even then, organic animal products from large farms are still able to sell their products at premium due to their certification. Consumers are willing to pay up to 60% more for products with the organic certification as compared to those without. As such, consumers of such products more often than not, do not get what they paid or asked for. Ethical Concerns for Organic Certification and Labeling
Misplace of Consumers’ Trust in Advertising of Organic Products From the above discussions, it can be noticed that the criteria for foods to be certified organic is not sufficient to meet the true purpose of organic foods and as such, they do not meet the expectations of consumers. The certification then becomes a fraudulent piece of information on the product labels that entice customers to buy the respective product due to its assumed benefits or lack of negative effects. Based on regulations for truthful advertising: … advertisements should not:
b. Misrepresent any information to mislead consumers into believing any matter that is not true, such as the source of the product, quality of the product, obligation (or non-obligation) in using a trial product, and others; It seems that when products have organic certifications or labels, they do seem to be misleading consumers. A report by the established USDA goes, ‘when absolutely necessary, some fertilizers and also herbicides are very selectively and sparingly used as a second line of defense. Nevertheless, these farmers, too, consider themselves to be organic farmers’. This means that many if not most of these certified organic products from such farmers, have included at least a certain amount of pesticides in their produce as opposed to what consumers expect. Thus, even organic certifications by agents do not have completely ‘organic’ standards, and yet, representing these on food product labels will lead consumers to believe that they do. Despite most organic certification not being as free of chemicals, they are highly trusted by consumers who are enticed to buy them because they deem these products to be free of chemicals. Although there are reports that establish such discrepancies, most consumers are unaware of this.
This violates Article 3: Honesty under the ICC Code: Marketing communication should be so framed as not to abuse the trust of consumers or exploit their lack of experience or knowledge. It can be observed that because of the trust that consumers place in organic certifications and there are some less well-informed consumers (e.g. elderly), products with certified as organic or use the word organic for labeling or advertising should take special care so as not to abuse this trust. Furthermore, most consumers will not go to the extent of researching on a particular company from which they purchase food products to validate the organic certification received, as food products are daily small ticket items that do not justify the effort of research on its source.
Although we identify a high possibility of many organic food companies abusing the trust of consumers, it is difficult to charge every single organic product, as there are too many of them and each item is produced by a combination of ingredients from a wide variety of sources. It is an upheaval task to establish if every single food source truly meets the objective of being organic. This is where the ethical judgment of these companies is obliged, for them to be self-regulators of the advertising practices. They ought to know where to draw a line to their convincing marketing strategies if it discounts the consumers right to knowledge and the truth to what they bargain for. The Dilemmas Behind the Organic Foods Business
The organic food market is a growing and profitable business because for one, people are aware and concerned about the need for organically produced foods. Next, corporations and farms ride on that and do the minimal they can cost-wise to achieve organic certification in order to sell better to these ethical consumers. Consumers do buy these products, being blinded by the presence of the certification to the reality of the farms. As such, the situation benefits only the big organic food firms and their suppliers the most. This is unacceptable based on the Kantian theory, given that both the consumers and the organic certification were treated as means to an end. Would we say the end justifies the means? An economist will probably say so given that the profits will be channeled back into the market and lead to economical growth. Yet a Utilitarian will feel that the greater good of all the consumers are denied for the betterment a smaller population. The consumers have their trust misplaced, purchase more expensive products without getting the full advantages traded for and consume foods that are not free of chemicals or cruelty.
Such costs suffered by the consumers may seem unsubstantial individually, however, with $30billion of sales involved, the number of consumers affected amplifies. This turns out to be a greater ‘bad’. When viewing this situation from another angle, it poses another ethical dilemma. On one hand, organic certification and labeling is supposed to propose organic foods’ noble intent that ultimately benefits the ecosystem and all members of society. Yet, companies misuse it as a marketing strategy to improve sales, which misleads consumers into trusting the source of organic products due to their association with health and nourishment, because they value pleasure and wellbeing highly. There is a need to propagate the goodness of organic foods, but it is also necessary to protect consumers from being deluded by the organic labels placed on some foods that do not uphold the goodness, but merely satisfy labeling requirements. Recommended Solutions
To satisfy both needs of companies and consumers, one way is to set up a reputable international watchdog to impose stricter standards on all organic certification agents to warrant the entirety of organic foods’ purpose. The watchdog will endorse all organic food labels in addition to those by respective countries’ organic food regulators, providing double certification that the organic label is trustworthy. The watchdog also ought to review every single certification agent, and without financial benefits, the watchdog will be able to uphold its moral judgment. In the same regard, consumers also have to be educated to differentiate between honest and dishonest labels and certifications. The particular countries’ agricultural and food authority (e.g. AVA in Singapore) can campaign to inform consumers the difference between having the word ‘organic’ on a product’s packaging and a trusted authority’s certification. As Singapore’s Health Promotion Board has successfully campaigned for its Healthier Choice label for foods, where 7 in 10 consumers are aware of it, similar strategies can be taken to approach organic labeling. In addition to the practical steps to improve the reliability of organic labeling, companies should themselves refrain from using it as a marketing tactic. Similarly, stricter standards for advertising can be set within countries that specifically target unique items such as organic, free trade, cruelty-free certification and labeling as consumers generally receive them more positively and place a lot of trust in them. Conclusion
As much as organic certifications are initiated with good intentions, the profit-driven nature of the food production and retail industry has simply used them, and the intended beneficiaries, as a means to an end – to reap greater profits. As such, the certifications do not serve their original purpose more than making money. It is thus necessary for relevant regulatory institutions to review the standards and criteria to achieve the certifications. This improves the trustworthiness of the organic labels and certifications, as well as better provide consumers with what they bargained for – food that is truly natural, environmental and healthy.
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