January saw a sudden outbreak of blunt talk regarding organics in the United Kingdom. First David Miliband, the environment secretary, did an interview with The Sunday Times, and the story came out this way:
ORGANIC food may be no better for you than mass-produced farm food, according to the cabinet minister responsible for the industry.
David Miliband, the environment secretary, says organic produce, which is usually more expensive, is a “lifestyle choice” with no hard evidence that it is healthier.
His comments will be a blow to the organic food industry, which is pressing for government recognition of what it describes as the nutritional and environmental benefits of its produce.
Sales of organic food jumped by 30% last year, with the industry now worth £1.6 billion. A growing number of shoppers believe that it tastes better and is safer.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Miliband said: “It’s only 4% of total farm produce, not 40%, and I would not want to say that 96% of our farm produce is inferior because it’s not organic.”
He insisted that ordinary food should not be thought of as “second best”, although he described the rise of organics as “exciting.”
On nutritional benefits, the minister said: “It’s a lifestyle choice that people can make. There isn’t any conclusive evidence either way.”
He is a politician and backtracked a bit when the predictable uproar among the predictable parties occurred after the interview was published.
Perhaps even more significant, Egon Ronay, a prominent food critic in the U.K., has spoken out on the same subject:
ONE of the country’s most respected food critics has called on the government to provide clearer information about organic food.
Egon Ronay said shops and producers were profiting from public confusion about the issues surrounding organic produce.
He questioned the way organic goods were marketed, stating there is no scientific proof they are healthier….
He told the BBC: “The public has no clear idea what organic food is. We’re being conned and I think the minister ought to be pinned down and ought to be challenged to spell out in terms that the public can clearly understand what is organic food.”
The focus of Ronay’s critique of shops and producers is a different focus than previous critiques of various organic advocacy groups.
There are many fortunes being made now in the organic world. In fact, part of the story of the spinach/E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak is how desperately many wanted to protect the reputation of organic product.
Ten years ago, that would have been for ideological reasons. Now it is for financial reasons.