Horizon 'natural' yogurt cheaper, friendlier, meaningless-er than organics

Consumers, Dean Foods (DF) discovered, are a little put off by the term "organic." A survey by the Shelton Group found that consumers believed that "natural" is a greener descriptor than "organic," that "natural" is federally regulated -- and that "organic was just a fancy way of saying 'expensive.'" So the company, which already markets and sells the popular Horizon Organic dairy line, is now launching "natural" yogurt and milk line aimed at young children, featuring the happy cow-jumping-over-the-planet logo from the Horizon Organic products.

To say that this "has advocates worried about consumer confusion" is an understatement. It's not just the cow logo, who is connected in consumer eyes to organic and nutritious products (though the super-sweet chocolate milk is, in my family, a rare treat I definitely don't categorize as "health food"). It's the whole concept of "natural," which Dean Foods has defined as "produced without added hormones, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup," but really has no federal definition at all. The USDA does regulate the use of the term "natural" for meat and poultry; but neither the USDA nor the FDA has any jurisdiction over "natural," leaving Pepsi (PEP) free to brand its new product "Pepsi Natural," because it uses sugar not derived from corn (it's derived from beets and sugar cane), despite highly-processed ingredients that are in all likelihood produced with chemical processes and grown with pesticides.

Consumer advocates and sustainable food activists are worried this will end up "blurring the line" between organic and natural foods even further than it currently is in the minds of American mothers, sure that they should feed their children fewer chemical derivatives and pesticides, but often too harried to spend time reading up on individual ingredients -- or even reading ingredients lists at all. Using the trusted Horizon brand and label, and the happy-green-feeling word "natural," Dean Foods could be on to something profitable.

Says Monica Eng of the Chicago Tribune, "some observers" (in other words, other big food companies) "suspect companies will be watching Dean's new venture to see if they can shed cumbersome and expensive organic standards." Who wants to pay extra for organic certification and the organic sweeteners that must be in short supply, if the industry can just spend less conforming to standards that have, for the most part, been already adopted by marketers of children's and "healthy" food? Avoiding growth hormones and staying away from artificial colors is great; but it's already a part of the repertoire of many food brands. Confusing consumers between the distinction between a regulated term and an unregulated, but equally feel-food, substitute is good business, if in the word "good" all you are critiquing is the ability to generate profits over the next several quarters.

In the long term, the health of consumers and farmland will not prove to be as resilient as has the American consumers' blissfully blind trust of food companies and the ever-cheaper, handily-subsidized food products they have served up to the American public.

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