On Topic: Forbidden fruit


Not quite 10 minutes, tops, after finishing off the shiny red apple — a Gala, if I recall correctly, though it could have been a Braeburn — my head exploded.

I began sneezing, emphatically, and this went on for potentially twice as long as it had taken me to eat the fruit in the first place.

“So why are your apples labeled organic when they clearly are not?” I asked the vendor who supplied the fruit to the local health food market when I found him the following Saturday.

“They are organic,” he insisted with a bit more indignation than I thought he had a right to claim. His ground, after all, wasn’t that solid in my view, given the scientific evidence of my recent exploded-head experience.

I explained that I sought out “organic” apples because — at least so far as I understood the rules — that meant they’d not been sprayed with Alar, the color-enhancing chemical that, among other things, made my head, well, explode.

We debated the topic for some time. It didn’t end well — for me, the store or the apples in question.

Even though that particular apple kerfuffle occurred a few years back, the organic marketing debate — and marketing really is what we’re talking about — continues. It might all be a case of customer miscomprehension.

The Post, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, noted that over the past two decades the amount of cash Americans have laid out for food and drinks carrying a sticker that brands them as “organic” has skyrocketed, lickety-split, from $1 billion to $28 billion.

But as recently as June 20, Peter Laufer, a University of Oregon journalism professor, noted in the Washington Post that lots of us still don’t get what “organic” truly means.

Among other points, Laufer, the author of the just-released “Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling,” wrote that just because something bears an organic label, that doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent organic. Which could go some distance toward helping resolve the head-versus-apple dispute.

Laufer also tackled the issues of whether pesticides are necessarily bad for us and the environment. He concluded that it’s still wise to “think globally but buy locally” given the crumby regulatory enforcement in many foreign nations.

In other words, if you think “organic” food from Kazakhstan will be as safe as items from, say, an Eastern Iowa grower, you’ve not been paying attention.

We’ve allowed the message — like the cars that now take over parallel-parking while we fiddle with our smartphone — to do our thinking for us.

Owners of the Washington Redskins, for the kerjillionth time in the past couple decades, find themselves having to argue their marketing position — that the term “Redskins” isn’t racist and that they should be allowed to carry on using the moniker and collecting the bucket loads of money that come with selling stuff related to a name the NFL team has sported for 80 years.

But to employ the “organic” labeling argument, is “Redskins” 100 percent offensive? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office proclaimed last month that, indeed, that name is “disparaging” to native Americans.

A survey conducted a decade ago by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of 768 self-described native Americans, however, determined that about 90 percent of respondents weren’t bothered by the team name “Washington Redskins.”

Could it be that the coupling of a city name with a label used to suggest, to be kind, a group of people with disagreeable characteristics — or, at the least, who are “other” — tamps down some of the sharp edges?

Would the findings be the similar if tested solely on the word “Redskins”? What if the poll were conducted today?

That’s the thing about marketing and why, despite all possible good intentions, it doesn’t all go well: We need to keep in mind it isn’t necessarily about health, nutrition, safety or even inclusivity. It’s about appealing to a specific audience. It’s about selling stuff.

As sellers and buyers we should hold onto that thought.

Otherwise our heads might explode.

Michael Chevy Castranova is Sunday editor of The Gazette. (319) 398-5873;

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