"Organic" food rule could have up to 38 loopholes
By Scott J. Wilson
Los Angeles Times
With the "USDA Organic" seal stamped on its label, Anheuser-Busch calls its
Wild Hop Lager "the perfect organic experience."
But many beer drinkers may not know Anheuser-Busch got the organic blessing
from federal regulators even though Wild Hop Lager uses hops grown with
chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides.
A deadline of midnight Friday to come up with a new list of nonorganic
ingredients allowed in USDA-certified organic products passed without
from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), leaving uncertain whether
some foods currently labeled "USDA organic" would continue to be produced.
The agency is considering a proposal to allow 38 nonorganic ingredients to
be used in organic foods. Because of the broad uses of these ingredients -
as spices, colorings, and flavorings for example - almost any type of
manufactured organic food could be affected, including organic milk,
sausages, bread and beer.
Organic-food advocates have fought to block all or parts of the proposal,
saying it would allow food makers to mislead consumers.
"This proposal is blatant catering to powerful industry players who want
benefits of labeling their products 'USDA organic' without doing the work
source organic materials," said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the
Organic Consumers Association of Finland, Minn., a nonprofit group with
USDA spokeswoman Joan Shaffer declined comment.
Food manufacturers said last week that they were hoping the agency would
by Friday to allow labeling of organic products to continue.
A federal judge had given the USDA until midnight Friday to name the
nonorganic ingredients it would allow in organic foods, but the agency did
not release a list.
"They probably don't know what to do" Cummins said. "On the other hand,
hard to believe they're going to make people change their labels, although
that's what they should do."
Demand for organic food in the United States is booming, as consumers seek
products that are more healthful and friendlier to the environment. Sales
have more than doubled in the past five years, reaching $16.9 billion last
year, according to the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass.,
represents small and large food producers.
But with big companies entering what was formerly a mom-and-pop industry,
new questions have been raised about what goes into organic food.
For food to be called organic, it must be grown without chemical
and pesticides. Animals must be raised without antibiotics and growth
hormones and given some access to the outdoors.
Many nonorganic ingredients, including hops, are already being used in
organic products, thanks to a USDA interpretation of the Organic Foods
Protection Act of 1990. In 2005, a federal judge disagreed with how the
was applying the law and gave the agency two years to fix it.
Organic-food supporters had hoped the USDA would allow only a small number
of substances but were dismayed last month when the agency released the
proposed list of 38 ingredients.
"Adding 38 new ingredients is not just a concession by the USDA, it is a
major blow to the organic movement in the U.S. because it would erode
consumer confidence in organic standards," said Carl Chamberlain, a
assistant with the Pesticide Education Project in Raleigh, N.C.
In addition to hops, the list includes 19 food colorings, two starches,
sausage and hot-dog casings, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin and a
variety of obscure ingredients (one, for instance, is a "bulking agent" and
sweetener with the tongue-twisting name of fructooligosaccharides).
The proposed rule would allow up to 5 percent of a food product to be made
with these ingredients and still get the "USDA Organic" seal. Even hops,
though a major component of beer's flavor, are less than 5 percent of the
final product, because the beverage is mostly water.
Organic beer, though still a small portion of total beer sales, has been
growing even faster than overall organic-food sales, reaching $19 million
2005, a 40 percent increase over the previous year (2006 figures were not
In addition to hops, two other items on the USDA list have attracted
particular attention: casings for sausages and hot dogs, and fish oil.
Casings are intestines from cows, pigs or sheep, and have been used for
centuries to wrap meat into sausages and frankfurters.
While the casings are a tiny portion of the overall sausage, organic
object to eating anything from animals raised on conventional farms, where
animals may be housed in tight quarters and given antibiotics and growth
hormones. Further, they note that the USDA's food-safety division has
identified cow intestines as a possible source of bovine spongiform
encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.
Fish oil's presence on the USDA list has drawn objections because it could
carry high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants, said Jim Riddle,
former member of the National Organic Standards Board. But fish-oil
producers said such contaminants can be screened out.
USDA doesn't enforce
The USDA rules come with what appears to be an important consumer
protection: Manufacturers can use nonorganic ingredients only if organic
versions are not "commercially available."
But food makers have found their way around this barrier, in part because
the USDA doesn't enforce the rule directly. Instead, it depends on its
certifying agents, 96 licensed organizations in the United States and
overseas, to decide what it means for a product to be unavailable in
Despite years of discussions, the USDA has yet to provide certifiers"There is no effective mechanism for identifying a lack of organic
standardized guidelines for enforcing this rule.
ingredients," complained executives of Pennsylvania Certified Organic, a
nonprofit certifying agent, in a letter to the USDA. "It is a very
challenging task to 'prove a negative' regarding the organic supply."
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
More efforts to weaken organic standards to the low corporate levels. This is yet another sterling example of why we at Boulder Belt opted out of the USDA NOP. To us organics is a way one farms, not a markeing gimmick. We would like to see higher standards, not lower. Buy local folks, buy local.