The Gourmet Q + A: Mark Kastel

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DT: Do you find that government officials are sensitive to your concerns? Or are they more sensitive to the powerful farm-industry lobbies?

MK: It cuts both ways at the regulatory agencies. There are many, many dedicated career civil servants that really believe in their roles protecting the citizenry, their mandates to support family farmers, and their charge at the USDA with protecting the integrity of the organic label and the consumer. Unfortunately, there has been a long-term, institutional bias at the FDA and the USDA toward a cozy relationship with these corporate players. Is that because of campaign-finance involvement? Is that because of incredible investments in lobbying? I mean, Dean Foods spends millions in both campaign funding and lobbying. Is it the revolving door at many of these agencies? Or is it a combination?

We’re non-partisan, but I can only tell you that things have never been worse at the USDA and the FDA than under the Bush administration. In my vernacular, they have “Katrina’d” the organic program. That’s a critique from someone who was highly critical of the Clinton administration for some of the same biases. But we have never had more overt monkey-wrenching and a closed environment where we literally had to sue the USDA—we’re still in federal court—just to get documents that citizens are legally entitled to access. So we are just tickled to death that there’s going to be a change in administration.

DT: But has either candidate mentioned these issues, as far as you’ve seen?

MK: The only candidate I know of who has actually mentioned organics is Obama, and there was a lengthy interview with Michelle Obama, talking about how she buys organic food for her family and they believe in organic food for her children. I don’t know if the McCain campaign has discussed organics—they might have and I might just not be aware of it.

DT: Do you want big corporations to be scared of Cornucopia?

MK: Interesting. I want big corporations to be scared of retributions from the organic consumer. A lot of people would like to kill us. We’re the messenger. But we’ve seen that the work we do has clout. But it only has clout because of this unique partnership between the consumers and farmers in the marketplace. I’ll give you an example: The Publix supermarket chain in Florida—it’s one of the largest chains in the country—was buying milk from Aurora dairy. They switched, and we heard a story from some dairy farmers in Louisiana: Publix contacted these organic farmers and said, “We’d like to continue buying milk from you.” These farmers were impressed because corporate officials flew down in their Learjet, and they toured all the farms—there were at least a half dozen farms—to make sure that they were actually grazing their cattle. And they mentioned Cornucopia. Now, was it out of fear? Or was it out of optimism that they would have a good ranking on our scorecard?

We know that our work is changing the decision-making process at some of these major industry players. And so I don’t care if it’s out of fear, or out of the motivation of entrepreneurs to have the best image with organic consumers. Either way, it’s a win for farmers and consumers.

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