Restaurants seeking to capitalize on the growing demand for organic food are misusing organic labeling, says an exposé in the New York Times.
Companies like the popular fast food burger chain Bareburger display the word "organic" on packaging and marketing materials, but not all of the products served by the chain meet the USDA's certified organic criteria. In some cases, the items contain zero organic ingredients.
Food and beauty products sold in supermarkets that bear the organic seal must meet certain criteria that verify the use of organic processes--namely a lack of pesticides and herbicides on crops, the absence of genetic modification, and in animal-based products, no antibiotics and an adherence to strict animal welfare standards.
But for restaurants, that's not the case. "Bareburger is not necessarily breaking any rules," the Times notes. "While farms and other businesses that want to advertise their wares as organic have to answer to certifying organizations that conduct annual inspections for the Department of Agriculture, restaurants do not. A restaurant can seek organic certification if it wants, but is not required to."
Under the National Organic Program's rules, restaurants need only make a "reasonable" effort to source organic material in order to use the label.
"There is no precise definition, however, of what constitutes a reasonable effort, and no monitoring body for enforcement," the Times explains. The USDA may investigate complaints of false use of organic claims, but they're low priority requests on an already overtaxed agency.
Most recently, Bareburger has begun to heavily promote two vegan menu options: the popular Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger dominate its Instagram feed. The meaty plant-based burgers are attracting vegans and vegetarians, but they're also a hit with the chain's omnivore clientele. Beyond Meat says it's sold more than 11 million of its burgers nationwide since it launched in 2016, and chains like Bareburger have played a strong role in that success. While the Beyond Burger was recently verified as free of genetically modified ingredients by the Non-GMO Project, the Impossible Burger's key ingredient, a product called "heme," comes from the root of a genetically modified soy plant. By the USDA's definition, organic products cannot contain GMO ingredients.
When the USDA first created the National Organic Program in 2002, restaurants were exempted as the agency focused on farmers and handlers. But since the program's early day, interest in organic food has skyrocketed; Millennials and Gen-Zers are seeking more organic food options than ever before. More than 80 percent of U.S. homes report purchasing organic food regularly. The organic food industry is valued at more than $45 billion in annual revenues.
Chains like Bareburger seek to capitalize on customers disenchanted by the major fast food restaurants and the $1 menu item ethos; but according to the Times, there may be no difference in ingredients from those cheaper chains, just in how they're marketed to consumers.
For customers, seeing "organic" on a menu is likely no different than seeing other buzzwords like "natural", "local", or "sustainable" -- words the USDA and FDA don't regulate but that food manufacturers use ad libitum in order to charge premiums for their products. And for now, the USDA says it doesn't have immediate plans to change organic regulations for restaurants.
“We are making progress toward the goal of a customer friendly system that is faster and even more transparent," The USDA told the Times. "There are many factors that impact the time an investigation takes.”
Related on Organic Authority
Global Organic Food and Beverages Market Will Nearly Triple by 2024, According to New Report
Organic Industry Organizes ‘New Era’ After USDA Cancels Checkoff Program
GMO Technology’s Role in the Future of Food Is Not What You Might Expect