(Beyond Pesticides, June 13, 2007) Proposed nonorganic additions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic standards have experts raising their eyebrows about the integrity of the “USDA Organic” label. The nonorganic exceptions being considered involve common ingredients, such as hops and food coloring.
Under the 1990 Organic Foods Protection Act, USDA is required to identify which nonorganic ingredients are allowed in organic food products. Current organic standards require products labeled “Organic” to be made up of at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The remaining five percent can come from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (NL), a list comprised of substances that are not otherwise commercially available as organic.
The 38 new ingredients being proposed for permanent addition to the NL include hops, 19 food colorings, fish oil, and chipotle chili pepper. According to Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, “This proposal is blatant catering to powerful industry players who want the benefits of labeling their products ”˜USDA organic’ without doing the work to source organic materials.”
Advocates for organic integrity argue that the majority of the 38 proposed ingredients are available; loopholes in the rule’s intended safeguard stem from USDA’s failure to enforce its own guidelines. USDA has failed to provide its 96 certifying agents with standardized guidelines for determining commercial availability of an ingredient. In a letter to USDA, Pennsylvania Certified Organic wrote, “There is no effective mechanism for identifying a lack of organic ingredients. It is a very challenging task to ”˜prove a negative’ regarding the organic supply.” Merrill Clark, of Roseland Organic Farms in Michigan, said, “More than 90 percent of the food/agricultural items on the proposed list of materials in this rule are items that can easily be grown organically.”
Products that would be affected by this rule include several new varieties of beer made by Anheuser-Busch, like Organic Wild Hop Lager and Organic Stone Mill Pale Ale. James A. Riddle, current Beyond Pesticides board member and former chairman of USDA’s Organic Advisory Board, said, “Hops are a crucial ingredient for beer. Why can’t they use organic hops?” Other products include sausages, whose casings can be produced from conventionally-raised animals, which have been raised in feedlots and given antibiotics and growth hormones, and Annie’s Homegrown macaroni and cheese, which relies on a nonorganic, orange food coloring.
Industry groups have had two years to suggest ingredients for the new NL; USDA’s public comment period was open for seven days this spring. “To give the public seven days to comment is really insulting,” said Mr. Riddle. Besides that, it gave industry groups an enormous advantage in determining the future of organic integrity. As Carl Chamberlain, of the Pesticide Education Project, said, “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.”
Beyond Pesticides remains a vocal advocate for the integrity of organic standards. Ensure that you are getting truly organic products and supporting local agriculture by buying 100 percent organic, local food whenever possible. For more information on our organic food program, click here.