Organic vs. Authentic: Or What to Make When Kierkegaard Comes to Dinner

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[Katherine Mangu-Ward]

According to this weekend's Salon, the word "organic" is, like, so over. Instead, author Edward Behr argues, it's "time to define quality in a way corporations can't co-opt." The proposed alternative: authentic.

The word "authenticity" already comes loaded with some pretty impressive baggage. (As in: "Hey Sartre! You brought Kierkegaard and Erich Fromm? Come on in! We're just making dinner.") But undaunted, Salon picks up a proposal to fill the organic-shaped holes in foodies' hearts:

To have an "authentic" label, food would have to be sold directly by the person or family who grew it -- no middleman. (Of course, many farmers don't have the time or desire to do their own retail selling. But if they did, customers could give useful feedback on varieties, ripeness, and taste.) "Fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, and meat [would be] produced within a 50-mile radius of their place of final sale," Coleman wrote, suggesting possible standards. "The seed and storage crops (grains, beans, nuts, potatoes, etc.) [would be] produced within a 300-mile radius." Only "traditional processed foods" -- cheese, bread, wine -- could claim to be "made with authentic ingredients."

Don't get me wrong, this sounds tastier than an Adorno lecture on the false authenticity of jazz. I'd gratefully eat a meal made with this stuff, and hugely enjoy shopping for the ingredients. But only the delusionally hopeful would look at that list and see anything other than a trailer for Organic: The Revenge.

The tale of organics' fall from grace is pretty well known: Once upon a time, the word organic was the center of a vague cluster of ideas, including wholesomeness, family farming, naturalness, freshness and, well, authenticity. For a while, only dirty hippies and even dirtier yuppies cared much about the topic. But as it oozed out into the world, marketing departments at food manufacturers were struck with a thought: A word with those juicy connotations is worth money. So lots of folks made concessions to the ideas in their process or ingredients and started slapping the word organic on their labels. (Something similar happened with the word natural too.)

That made the jealous guardians of America's food packaging, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, antsy. As in many bureaucracies, the USDA's official stance is: If there's money to be made, there are regulations to be written. In due course, a carefully-negotiated set of federal regulations were released. And--at almost precisely that moment--the top tier of foodies stopped giving a hoot about organic food.

Eliot Coleman, the fine market gardener who lives on the coast of Maine [who came up with the definition of food authenticity above], has no doubt that well-raised organic food is superior to conventional, but after the government defined "organic," he concluded it was "dead as a meaningful synonym for the highest quality food."

The same future awaits authenticity: Squint your eyes and you can make out the wiggle room in the concept of "traditionally processed foods." Imagine the creative business arrangements that will allow farmers' third-cousins by adoption twice-removed to perform middleman roles. See the loopholes written into the law to allow inner city "food deserts" to benefit equally from authentic food.

I doubt Coleman wants the feds to get involved, and there's nothing wrong with encouraging people to eat directly from farmstands, even if it's primarily for aesthetic reasons. Nor is there anything wrong with branding that effort. But trying to capture a powerful concept like authenticity in a list of food mileages is bound in end in heartbreak--and probably heartburn, too. This sort of thing is corporation bait--hey look, there's already an Authentic Foods brand, available at Amazon.com! And a book called Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want from 2007!--and thus regulator bait of the most irresistible kind. 

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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