As two Washington Post reporters explained on Friday, there was a campaign a few years ago to ban omega-3 supplements from organic baby food because the fatty acids weren’t “natural” enough. Fortunately, it failed — given the brain- and vision-boosting properties of omega-3s for children’s development, why would anyone object to feeding more of them to babies? Organic-only expectations: Meet food-labeling reality.
As the controversy over omega-3s in baby food (and the Post) illustrates, knee-jerk rejections of anything “artificial” or “synthetic” are no match for public-health due diligence:
[T]he USDA program’s shortcomings mean that consumers, who at times must pay twice as much for organic products, are not always getting what they expect: foods without pesticides and other chemicals, produced in a way that is gentle to the environment …
"People are really hung up on regulations," said [USDA Organic Standards Board member Joe] Smillie, who is also vice president of the certifying firm Quality Assurance International, which is involved in certifying 65 percent of organic products found on supermarket shelves. "I say, ‘Let’s find a way to bend that one, because it’s not important.’ … What are we selling? Are we selling health food? No. Consumers, they expect organic food to be growing in a greenhouse on Pluto. Hello? We live in a polluted world. It isn’t pure. We are doing the best we can."
Smillie is right: An “organic” label doesn’t confer “health food” status. Nor will paying double for tomatoes prevent climate change. (In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the view that modern agriculture practices are more “sustainable” than their technology-averse competitors.)
Organic labels are overrated, and they’re not alone. For example, sugar marketers are using meaningless absence labels to profit off misunderstandings about high fructose corn syrup. Biochemists can’t tell the difference between regular milk and the trendy stuff misleadingly labeled “hormone-free.” And as we’re pointing out to Tennessean readers today, labeling restaurant menus with calorie counts won’t solve America’s obesity problem.
It’s difficult to see how labeling everything on our menus and in our grocery aisles will make anyone safer or healthier. Clutter is certainly bad for the planet, and it’s not too healthy for the mind either.