“Got Milk?” Campaign for Organic?

The Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill would set the wheels in motion for a national organic marketing program similar to the dairy farmers’ program that funded the “Got Milk?” campaign, the egg farmers’ program that funded “The Incredible, Edible Egg,” the cattle ranchers’ program that funded “Beef.  It’s What’s for Dinner,” and the pork producers’ program that funded “Pork.  The Other White Meat.”

Pork. Be Inspired.

The latest from the USDA’s “checkoff” programs. Not quite as catchy as its predecessor.

Like the existing programs for milk, eggs, beef and pork, a new organic program will be funded by mandatory contributions from organic producers, assuming Congress signs its provisions into law and the industry approves the program.

I’ve been hearing calls for such a program for years at presentations at the annual Expo West and Expo East natural food conventions.  Tired of consumer confusion over just what “organic” means, and of consumers attributing the benefits of organic food to food merely labeled “natural,” some producers want to get the word out so people know exactly what “organic” means.

And, rather than one or two producers running a major campaign that would equally benefit all organic producers, a mandatory contribution program would spread the cost of such a campaign across all the producers it would benefit.  Sounds like a neat idea.

But the idea has lots of opposition, even from within the organic community.  Some activist groups like the Cornucopia Institute fear that the program is being promoted by the Organic Trade Association, which Cornucopia feels is dominated by large industrial food companies that have taken ownership of some of the larger organic companies.  These giant companies’ interests may not fully align with those of smaller organic farmers, and yet those large companies are likely to prove most influential in determining the nature of any newly funded marketing campaign.

Other industry groups have also voiced opposition.  The national organization of dairy farmers wrote a letter to Republican House leadership opposing the program on the grounds that it’s likely to be ineffective and to lead merely to industry consolidation.  Their fears were fed by the results of the previously mentioned campaigns for dairy, eggs, beef and pork.

And the results of those campaigns are true causes for concern.  Sales of at least three of those products (I’m not sure about pork) have declined significantly since the campaigns went into effect, despite millions of dollars levied on producers to pay for them.  Some feel they’ve been badly managed, and worry that an organic checkoff program would go down the same road.

But a decline in sales since these marketing campaigns launched doesn’t necessarily mean those campaigns weren’t effective.  Several of these campaigns were launched because sales of these products were already on the decline, and it’s always possible that sales would have declined even further had those campaigns not launched.  So it’s tough to condemn these programs straight out based on results to date.

What’s more, there’s one big reason organic food may benefit from a campaign like this even if those other products didn’t: people don’t know what organic food is.  Milk, eggs, beef, pork: Everyone knows what they are.  Everyone’s always known what they are.

But organic food?  Though people regularly insist to me that everyone knows what “organic” means, I’ve had a different experience when actually talking to shoppers.  Having recently co-founded an organic food company, I do regular product demonstrations in our retail stores and talk to hundreds of customers a week.  I can’t tell you how many ask me what “organic” means.

This means organic producers could benefit enormously from a national awareness marketing campaign.  Assuming it’s done right.

So don’t be surprised if you see a “Got Organic?” campaign coming out soon.  It’s yet to be put into effect, and if the dairy farmers have their way, it never will be.  But it sounds like the idea is gaining momentum and, for better or for worse, organic food may soon be the subject of a grand new experiment.

What catchy slogans might they come up with?

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