The founders of the Ecological Food Society discuss their for-profit business promoting organic foods and natural cleaners, and their long-term vision to transition the conventional food and consumer products industries away from additives and toxic chemicals.
During the past year, a number of advertisements for the Ecological Food Society and its "DDT-less apple" have appeared in many of the country's leading magazines. If you've seen the ad, chances are you wondered—as we wondered — if the organization was on the level or if it was just a cover for someone out to capitalize on the "organic" food fad.
We became doubly intrigued when Steve Brown, president of Schiff-Brown and Co. (the New York ad agency behind EFS) bitterly attacked the advertising industry for "the merciless way in which it takes advantage of the consumer." In this and later assults on Madison Avenue, Brown charged that "all advertising is basically dishonest because its nature is involved in salesmanship and salesmanship introduces irrelevant, emotional considerations into what should be purely factual decisions. It may not be legally dishonest when ad agencies SELL any and everything to absolute maximum effect, but it is often morally dishonest."
When asked how he (president of an advertising agency) could remain in a profession for which he has such low regard, Brown answered, "I'm not posing as a saint but I do feel that I can best battle advertising's hypocritical hard sell from the inside. Don't forget that I, too, know how to SELL, which puts me in a good position to sell more natural ways of living. This can be a powerful lever with which to move legislators and manufacturers toward more ecologically sound practices."
Surely a man with such an attitude can't be all bad. We sent Allan Richards around to find out and Allan met both Steve Brown and his partner, Victor Schiff, in EFS's New York office.
PLOWBOY: I've read your advertisement in various magazines and have been quite curious and concerned about the Ecological Food Society. It all sounds so alluring — perhaps too alluring — since the natural food movement has already suffered from a lot of Madison Avenue bandwagoning. Can you clarify your intentions and methods of operation?
SCHIFF: There are many purposes behind EFS. The primary ones are to make the right kind of food products kind of products accessible, educate people about these products and provide services that can help produce a better environment.
BROWN: Let me add something to that. Without any crap, what we're trying to do is force a change. There are a lot of do-good organizations around that amount to wearing a "Give A Damn" button and nothing else. But we live in a capitalistic system which is profit oriented and a lot of food companies would be willing to produce healthful, nutritious, unpolluted food if there was a strong monetary incentive for them to do so. We're trying to create a market and a demand for good food that will provide that missing incentive. We're trying to expedite matters by giving things a little push. Hopefully, sometime in the future, the large companies will realize that there's a good market for healthful foods and will start producing such foods on their farms and selling such foods in their supermarkets.
SCHIFF: We hope this will happen soon, but we know that's not realistic. Most of the big food companies are just too heavily committed to producing and processing their products with chemicals, preservatives, and other harmful additives, and it will take a while for them to change. So at least in the beginning, we're trying hardest to reach smaller farmers and processors and others not committed to major promotion of the things we don't like, and we're trying to get these people to produce nutritious foods and other uncontaminated products.
PLOWBOY: How long has the Ecological Food Society existed?
SCHIFF: We've had the idea in mind for several years, but the organization itself is a new one. We had many problems getting started, especially with resources, and it wasn't until August of 1970 that we actually began the Ecological Food Society. We're still relatively small and suffering growing pains, but we do have a membership of 25,000 and the Society is running in the black.
PLOWBOY: Is the organization non-profit? Who sponsors it?
BROWN: The ecological Food Society is not a non-profit organization. In order to pay for advertisements in The New York Times ($4,500) and Saturday Review ($2,500), to buy equipment with which to test the food we handle and to coordinate supplies of the items we offer, we obviously needed a good deal of front money. We got that backing from private investors and those investors expect to get their money back and to make a profit. That's alright. I don't mind them getting their profit if this organization helps to get the organic movement rolling full steam.
PLOWBOY: You state in your advertisement that all your foods are "certified to contain no added pesticides, preservatives, or chemical additives of any kind." How can you be certain that claim is true?
SCHIFF: When we first began EFS, we purchased a $5,000 gas chromatograph, the same machine the FDA uses to check edibles for mercury, DDT, pesticides, etc. We want to know exactly what's in the foods we sell so that we won't send anyone anything harmful.
PLOWBOY: Do you test all the produce you sell?
SCHIFF: Obviously we can't test each individual vegetable or piece of fruit, so we sample test. Say we get in a bushel of apples. Several samples are pulled out, tested and taken as representative of the contents of that bushel.
BROWN: We sample test each shipment that comes in from one of our source farms. In the future we'll also be sample testing supermarket food and making detailed reports to our members so that if they must shop in the markets, they'll know what to buy and what to avoid.
PLOWBOY: Who supervises these tests? Do you have someone on your staff who is expert in the use of the gas chromatograph?
SCHIFF: Stanley Fine, president of EFS, operates the machine. He's taken a course on the gas chromatograph and is now qualified to run the tests that determine whether or not foods have been contaminated.
PLOWBOY: You mean that a single course qualifies Fine to chemically analyze the foods you sell?
BROWN: It's a series of lessons — a technical course — put together by the designers and builders of the gas chromatograph especially for the labs that use the machine. It involves ongoing correspondence and is not a course that you just sit down for an hour and take.
SCHIFF: Right now, Stanley Fine can take a piece of fruit, run it through the chromatograph and determine exactly what's in it. As a result of such tests, he can decide which foods meet our rigid standards and, thereby, qualify for shipment to our members.
PLOWBOY: Your ad also states that EFS has as advisors — Harold Brody, agronomist and agricultural consultant; John Zimmerman, environmentalist and research engineer at Columbia University; Samuel Asculai, microbiologist, and Dr. Aaron Steinberg, vice-president of NYSCA. How are they involved with the Ecological Food Society?
BROWN: Yes, those men advise us, and we've added several more consultants since the appearance of that ad. One of our advisors, Samuel Asculai, is a microbiologist who does research at Cornell and Rutgers on the effects of chemicals and pesticides on hormones and fetuses. Another whom we've just added, Stanley Bolpitt, is a municipal consultant on waste disposal and recycling for Westchester County and Darien, Connecticut. Still another, Mrs. Jean Schiff, is vice-president of Citizens for Clean Air.
We find reputable people in each of the fields in which we feel we need scientific or other help and we enlist those people as consultants, first making sure they don't belong to any other organization which would hinder them in their work for us.
SCHIFF: A major goal of the Society is education, and we can't educate others unless we ourselves are educated ... so we make sure that we have competent experts around to advise us in objective fashion. This enables us to supply our members with the right information.
PLOWBOY: Suppose I see your ad in the L.A. Free Press or The New York Times or wherever, and I decide to send in the coupon with the $5.00. What does the Ecological Food Society then do for me?
BROWN: The first thing we do is send you Earth-1, a nonsynthetic, non-toxic, non-polluting universal cleaner which the Society has developed. It's neither a soap nor a detergent, but it does everything either one can do except harm your body and pollute the environment. Earth-1 is inexpensive and the bottle we send will make four to eight gallons of cleaning solution.
We also send you an introductory letter. Shortly after that, you'll receive your first ecological option list — a regular mailing to all members — which is four to eight pages of photographs and descriptions of 15 or 20 items that you might find useful. There's no obligation to buy anything but we really hope you'll purchase one of the books we offer, entitled, "Poisons In Your Food." We want all our members to read that book and, if you can't afford it, we tell you to check the box and we'll send it to you anyway.
Another thing we send all new members is our newsletter. This is a regular, 90-page, illustrated guide to organic living which contains news about the environment, government agencies and action and bad products that you shouldn't buy.
Eventually, as more products are added to our sales list and as we get more farmers to grow natural foods and more beef producers to stop injecting synthetic hormones — like stilbestrol — in their cattle, our members will receive quite a large catalog.
PLOWBOY: This "ecological option list" of things to buy that you regularly send to your members ...
BROWN: It lists both food and household products, such as a spray insecticide which contains no DDT or parathion. We also offer things like seed sprouters for people who want to grow their own cress or soy or something at home. Another item we handle is an inexpensive water purifier that can be installed on a kitchen faucet to remove chlorides, fluorides, DDT, and other chemicals from tap water. One of the big rackets today is the selling of bottled water to people. Much of it is billed as "spring water" when it isn't, and the promoters sell this water for anywhere from 80¢ to $5.00 a bottle. That's outrageous! Our purifier lasts forever and — maybe once every four months — you have to replace its filter for $1.00 ... giving you pure water for about 3¢ a bottle.
In addition to the food and household items, of course, we offer several books about the environment and ecological living.
PLOWBOY: Are you already supplying your members with these goods?
BROWN: Yes, we're functioning and filling orders now. We supply the inventory we advertise and we do it at a pretty swift rate. Nothing stands around and loses its nutritional value. Our members receive their orders in a matter of days, depending on the postal system. When a new member answers the coupon ad, he'll receive his Earth-1 within ten days and his ordering bulletin about nine days after that. If he then sends us back an order the following day, he'll receive his first shipment of goods about ten days after he got the bulletin. From then on, he'll get his orders about ten days after we receive them.
PLOWBOY: And where do you obtain these goods in the first place?
BROWN: From small suppliers all over the country. Like Hargate for the insecticide, Crystal Lab for the water purifier, and Shaklee for vitamins. Small farmers produce our foods: dried pineapple from Hawaii, fertile eggs from the Midwest, organic peanut butter from California and so on.
PLOWBOY: Your full-page ad says that you'll be able to deliver your goods all over the country. What about perishables? How do you deliver them?
BROWN: Some perishables, as we state in that ad, aren't deliverable by mail but we've been working on special ways of shipping certain foods — fruits, meats, and vegetables — so they won't spoil. For instance, naturally grown meat can be shipped if it's properly packed in dry ice. We tell our members that it's going to cost a little more for that kind of service.
SCHIFF: We sell what we can by mail, but remember that another of our functions is the promotion of other sources of foods — good foods — for our members. We've been compiling a list of reputable natural food stores which we'll send to our members when we can't supply the foods they want. If we can't ship milk, for instance, we'll direct each of our members to the nearest reliable store where he can purchase milk with he can purchase milk with no fear of its being contaminated.
BROWN: We're contacting organic farmers in each state so that we can send people to places where they can buy good products. This is a very important function of the Society. We want to supply the products, but when we can't we'll supply the names of people who can. Our service is a combination of these two things.
PLOWBOY: If the goods you offer can be purchased in local stores, why should people come to EFS? What's the difference between your food and the food in health stores?
BROWN: OK. This is a very touchy subject. There are a lot of stores that sell health or natural foods. Some of those store are reputable and some are not; there are a lot of regular stores that think it's a great idea to call themselves health food stores when they're not.
We say that we test everything and we've put that in writing. We're liable for anything that doesn't live up to the standards we've set for ourselves. The government could close us up, customers could sue. With us, people can be sure of what they're getting. But if they can find other reputable stores that sell good foods and non-pollutant products, that's great! The main thing is that they eat the right things and use the right goods so that everybody doesn't have to swim around in a lot of crap any longer.
PLOWBOY: Does the Ecological Food Society look forward to organizing the whole movement toward more natural living'?
BROWN: Individuals, schools, institutions and co-op groups all over the country are now getting involved in this battle for pure food and we certainly want to help the organic movement unite into a strong and ongoing force.
PLOWBOY: How optimistic are you about the success of the Society?
BROWN: Very. We've mounted a $60,000 advertising campaign with ads in EVO, the L.A. Free Press, The New York Times, Harpers, Atlantic, and many other publications. The campaign has worked just as well in Buckley's National Review as it has in New Republic. It work in old people's magazines and it works in young people's magazines. We're optimistic that we'll get more organized and be able to create a network of natural food dealers and buyer, throughout the country.
We want to establish this as a reputable society from which people can buy good products and get an education about foods and ecology. Our ultimate goal is to pressure the big companies into producing healthful products.
I'll be really pleased when the large corporations realize that we've got a good thing going and start to give us competition. I'll even be pleased if they put us out of business as long as we can get the natural foods movement working. Eventually the big companies will find that it's to their advantage to produce the things they should be producing, but they have to be kicked in the butt first to get them moving in the right direction. We're going to try to do that kicking.