Coop is a large national grocery retail company that runs close to 660 grocery stores of different brands all across Sweden. They are owned by The Swedish Co-operative Union and The Consumer Association Stockholm. In 2015, their grocery stores sold items to a value of almost 17.3 billion Swedish Crowns (about 2.1 billion USD).
In 2015, Coop launched a fear-based and misleading pro-organic attack ad called “The Organic Effect” against conventional agriculture. They selected a single family with two adults and three children and had them eat organic food for two weeks. They measured conventional pesticides in their urine before and after those two weeks. Before they started eating organic food, researchers at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute (represented by Jörgen Magnér) found insecticides, fungicides and straw-shortening agents (~5 nanograms/milliliter). Afterwards, these conventional pesticides had allegedly disappeared.
The family in the video thought it was really disgusting to eat insecticides and felt very happy afterwards. Magnér claims that scientists know very little about the long-term effects of eating foods that have been exposed to pesticides and points out that combinations of chemicals can sometimes be worse than either of them on their own. The video finishes with the mother saying that her first reaction to the results from the urine tests is that she thinks of the children and that she never wants those chemicals that now have left their bodies back.
During 2015, Coop increased organic food sales by almost 20%. It is of course difficult to attribute all of this to the advertisement campaign, but it is reasonable to suppose it was not a complete failure. The Youtube video (see references and further reading section) of the advertisement has been seen almost 5.5 million times on Youtube.
Why is the “The Organic Effect” Marketing Campaign Scientifically Misleading?
This commercial is highly scientifically misleading for a number of reasons:
1. It only tested pesticides used in conventional agriculture and completely ignored pesticides used in organic agriculture (such as copper and iron sulfate, pyrethrines, sulfur, azadirachtin, spinosad etc.). Had they also tested organic pesticides, they probably would have found that those would increase when the conventional pesticides declined. They also never tested e. g. fungal toxins and other toxins that pesticides protect against.
2. The residual amounts detected are extremely low, only about 5 nanogram per milliliter from their charts.
3. The charts are very misleading, using extremely tall bars for minuscule amounts. It only goes up to 10 nanograms per milliliter.
4. They never discussed dosage in relationship to harm to human health. The dosages detected are only a few percentage of the acceptable daily intake, which is the amount you can eat every day for your entire life without any particular risk.
5. The video claimed that organic food was better for both human health and the environment, but the evidence either does not support this or is unclear.
6. The video fearmongers about “chemicals” (all substances are chemical) and uses fear, uncertainty and doubt about supposed long-term harmful effects and mixture toxicology. Yet these concerns also apply to organic pesticides and common household substances, such as coffee and alcohol.
7. It was only done with a single family, and since they are all closely related and eat the same food, it basically has a sample size of n = 1.
What is The Swedish Crop Protection Association?
The Swedish Crop Protection Association (“Svenskt Växtskydd”) is the trade association for Swedish crop protection companies. It consists of nine separate companies that produce pesticides and they have a turnover of about 650 million Swedish Crowns (~78 million USD).
Why did the Swedish Crop Protection Association sue Coop?
The basis for the lawsuit is that the Swedish Crop Protection Association thinks that Coop is guilty of misleading and inaccurate advertisement. They also call the marketing campaign “unethical”, “illegal” and “rigged”. In the end, they want Coop to stop using the misleading advertisement or face a penalty payment of 2 million Swedish Crowns (~240k USD).
They dug deeper and located the research reports behind “The Organic Effect” video, and had a lot of concerns about its methodology and the disconnect between the study and the video.
For instance, the studies had an important confounder, namely that a lot of other products, such as nicotine product, cleaning products and towels were replaced with their organic counterparts during the organic weeks. One of the substances they measured (3,5-DKA) is a breakdown product of both conventional pesticides and many household products. Thus, it cannot be demonstrated that the amounts measured truly came from pesticides and not household products from when they used conventional products. The measurements in the studies and in the ad campaign are also different. In the ad campaign, it was ng/ml, but the study used microgram substance per gram creatinine (μg/gkrt). It is unclear how this conversion was done or from when the data was taken, since the measurements were much more extensive in the report than what the video showed.
The video also hid data that did not support the pro-organic position. According to the study, the father had increased amounts of some conventional pesticides during the organic weeks compared with before. This was never shown in the video.
The lawsuit documents spans 26 pages and discusses many additional problems with the marketing campaign and the underlying research used for it. Despite the fact that the lawsuit could appear self-serving, the Swedish Crop Protection Association feels that Coop uses fear-based propaganda to demonize all other agriculture or food production. Coop welcomes the challenge.
References and further reading:
—> Skeptical overview of the video:
Novella, S. (2016). Organic Pesticides. Neurologica Blog. Accessed: 2016-05-31.
—> Swedish news coverage of the lawsuit:
—> Material from Swedish Crop Protection Association:
Swedish Crop Protection Association. (2016). COOPs marknadsföring rörande “ekoeffekten kommer att prövas rättsligt i marknadsdomstolen. (cached version). Accessed: 2016-05-31. (Press release)
—> Youtube video of the advertisement campaign:
CoopSverige. (2015). The Organic Effect. Accessed: 2016-05-31.
—> Reports that the video is based on (both ordered by Coop):
Magnér, J., Wallberg, P., Sandberg J., Cousins, A. P. (2015). Human exponering av bekämpningsmedel från livsmedel (cached version). IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute. Accessed: 2016-05-31.