Taking Wise Action to Help Protect Organic
By Patricia Dines
West County Gazette
July 19, 2007
Unfortunately, dramatic headlines and flawed analysis are clouding consumers' ability to take informed action about what's going on now with organic standards.
For instance, the Press Democrat's June 9 front page article, "FDA Loosens Rules for Organic" erroneously paints a picture of organic regulations gone wild. A skimming reader could easily conclude that a product could be called organic but have no organic ingredients, which is absolutely false. But how many readers understand enough about the regulations to sort this out? Instead, they're probably left just a little less certain about organic's integrity, a little less enthusiastic about supporting it.
The current issue is actually much more narrow and focused than that picture, a technical clarification in how standards for organic processed foods are implemented. In fact, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) actually sees this clarification as a tightening of the rules, rectifying something that was inadequately defined before.
It's still helpful to take action on this issue, but informed action will better protect organic's gift to our health and planet.
(1) The current issue is what's allowed in processed foods that are called organic. There's no impact on organic produce standards.
(2) From the inception of the national regulations, these have been the top two categories of organic processed food:
"100% Organic" which has 100% organic ingredients (excluding water and salt, which it doesn't make sense to define as organic), and
"Organic" which has at least 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% of the product can't include GMOs, but can include non-organic items, if organic of that item isn't commercially available.
This exception seems to have been established so that the lack of certain minor adjunct ingredients in organic form wouldn't block entire product categories from being organic. However, I and others disagree with this choice. "Organic" should mean 100% for processed foods, as it does with produce. If a producer can't find something organic, they should encourage someone to produce it, and in the meantime call their product 95% organic or whatever.
However, this design was decided years ago, and for me the solution has been simple: I check the labels for any product other than 100% organic to see what else is in there. I think organic overall is valuable enough for me to make this small adaptation.
(3) What's being debated now is what's allowed in the other 5% in the "organic" category. Previously, each organic certifier determined its standard for "not commercially available," which caused inconsistent application not visible to the consumer. Two years ago, a judge decided that the USDA needed to centrally determine which ingredients would get the "not commercially available" designation, and food producers would submit requests and justifications to get on that approved list. Thus this determination is brought to a consistent and visible level, which is a good thing.
(4) So, based on the petitions received, the USDA has proposed 38 minor ingredients (such as rice starch and food colorings) for this approved list. That's all the current news is. Important, yes, but all of organic isn't at stake here.
Now, some of us would prefer that there be no exceptions list at all, and I encourage you to act for that. However, as long as flexibility is allowed, it needs to be defined. That's why the current proposed list isn't a "loosening" of the rules but a clarification of them.
TAKE ACTION: However, you can object to the specific 38 items they've allowed, during the public comment period. I've put links on my website to sites that allow you take quick action on this issue. See <www.healthyworld.org/organicregs.html>.
This webpage also shows the newspaper articles on this topic, as well as the OTA perspective, and my comments about what's useful information and what's erroneous.
(5) Most importantly, be assured that overall the organic regulations are intact and worthy of our continued support. Organic is the best way we have right now to support food grown without toxics. Yes, we still need to read labels, watchdog the USDA, and stand up for organic's integrity, but from understanding, not erroneous fear.
I hope that this article helps you participate in maintaining the opportunity of organic for us all. To keep informed about these and other ecological issues, check out my EcoNews Blog at <www.healthyworld.org/newsblog.html>.
Patricia Dines is Author of The Organic Guide to Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino Counties, and Editor and Lead Writer for The Next STEP newsletter, which gently educates readers about toxics and alternatives.
(1) OFFICIAL ACTION INFO: This is the official USDA notice inviting public comment on this list of 38.
You can also download PDFs with more information from
It's not clear on the exact deadline, but I'm guessing that it's August 21, 2007, which is the previous deadline of June 21, 2007 plus 60 days.
(2) QUICK ACTION INFO WITH MORE DETAILS: This page for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) webpage makes it easy to comment on the USDA's proposed ingredients and gives more information on what they are and what OCA objects to, which could be input to your specific comments.
Note: OCA is being dramatic but not really accurate when they say that these are new ingredients, per the article above. They don't seem to understand the history or the structure of what's happening, that exceptions were already allowed and being made, just not visible at the national or consumer level. Now they're going to be visible so we can discuss them.
Overall, I appreciate OCA's enthusiasm and gathering of information. However, my experience is thattoo often they frame things as "Everything is being attacked by corporations," ringing the bell that all of organic is at risk every time, instead of doing an analysis that shows an understanding of how government bureaucracies think and work. I think that this overall gives people the feeling that organic isn't reliable, when these are really usually just small debates about the specifics of implementing the organic regulations.
So I'm always cautious about OCA's information, never taking it at face value without checking other sources. I suggest that you keep this in mind when you read their information.
The June 9, 2007 Press Democrat FDA loosens rules for 'organic is a reprint of a LA Times article. However, for some odd reason the Press Democrat changed the title from the original "USDA May Relax Standards for Organic Foods" and with that one edit changed the situation from one the reader could perhaps impact into a "done deal." Both titles erroneously say this is a loosening of standards, which it is not.
Below I have excerpts from three articles for you to read for more details. The first is the best, in the New York Times, with solid information about the issue. The second is the LA Times article, with my comments on some of the errors. The third is the OTA perspective, which clarifies some of the history, though I think goes too far the other direction, siding with manufacturer convenience without understanding our desire for pure and simple use of the word organic with processed products.
I hope that this information helps clarify what's really going on, and helps you participate constructively.
And if you want to keep informed about such issues in the future, check out my EcoNews Blog, which tracks articles on key environmental issues, and adds my commentary about the larger context.
** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
is distributed for research and educational purposes only. **
Nonorganic Exceptions Ruffle Enthusiasts of Organic Food, By Andrew Martin, The New York Times, June 11, 2007
The latest battle over what can be called organic involves beer and gelatin, food colorings and casings for sausage. The Department of Agriculture, the final arbiter of all things organic, is poised to approve a list of nonorganic ingredients that can be used in food stamped with its green-and-white organic seal.
The list includes hops for beer, dill weed oil for flavoring pickles, and elderberry juice coloring for making foods bright red to blue purple. There is also chia, an herb from Central America that is used in some baked goods, and fructooligosaccharides, a bulking agent that adds fiber.
In all, the organic advisory board to the Agriculture Department recommended that 38 nonorganic ingredients be added to a list of approved ingredients. Rules on organic labeling dictate that 95 percent of a product must be organic to obtain the department's label; the remaining 5 percent can be nonorganic if it comes from an approved list.
To get on the approved list, an organic alternative to the ingredient must not be commercially available.
But purists say that this list of ingredients is the latest example of big business trying to water down organic standards in an effort to cash in on the increased demand for organic products. They argue that allowing the nonorganic ingredients will weaken the integrity of the organic label.
"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," said Merrill A. Clark, an organic farmer from Michigan and a former member of the organic advisory board, in comments to the Agriculture Department.
She said that allowing such nonorganic ingredients are "totally unhealthy for the organic industry down the road," and are "opening the organic rules to ridicule and unflattering public exposure."
Jill M. Cataldo of Huntley, Ill., told the Agriculture Department that her family ate only organic beef to avoid exposure to mad cow disease and other health risks. But she questioned the integrity of organic sausage that would be wrapped in nonorganic casings made from the intestines of animals that can be fed such things as bovine growth hormones.
...The ingredients in dispute are already being used in organic products. But two years ago, a federal court ruled that the Agriculture Department had to approve each nonorganic agricultural product that was being used in organic food.
Previously, nonorganic agricultural products could be used as long as a certifying agent agreed that that they were not available as organic, at least not in the form, quality or quantity needed.
The court gave manufacturers two years to find an organic alternative or to petition the Agriculture Department to include the ingredients on a list of approved nonorganic agricultural products. The deadline was Friday, and the department was expected to make a decision by then.
Officials at the Department of Agriculture could not be reached for comment Sunday. Andrea M. Caroe, the chairwoman of the advisory board, said she expected a decision within days. Even if the list is approved, she said, manufacturers would still need to show that the ingredients were not available in organic form.
For instance, she said hops were included on the list because there is a large variety and some are not grown organically in adequate quantity for beer brewers.
John Foraker, chief executive of Annie's Homegrown, argued that nonorganic annatto was a crucial ingredient in the company's macaroni and cheese. "Organic annatto is not readily available and does not deliver the same cheese color," he said in a May 14 letter to the Agriculture Department. "Making orange colored macaroni and cheese is an important element of our offering. Without annatto, our macaroni-and-cheese products would be white."
Mark Sammartino, a brew master at Anheuser-Busch, said the company used four varieties of hops that were not available in organic form for two new varieties of beer: Organic Wild Hop Lager and Organic Stone Mill Pale Ale. The hops "represent unique flavor and aroma characteristics due to variation in essential oils," he wrote in a petition to the Agriculture Department that was received in January.
The fact that Anheuser-Busch may get an exemption rankled many organic food adherents.
"Hops are a crucial ingredient for beer. Why can't they use organic hops?" said James A. Riddle, an organic consultant and a former chairman of the organic advisory board.
Mr. Riddle also complained that manufacturers had two years to petition for nonorganic ingredients to be allowed in organic products. But the advisory board allowed only seven days for public comments once they had posted the list of 38 recommended ingredients.
"To give the public seven days to comment is really insulting," Mr. Riddle said.
PD NOTE: This time period has been extended - see above.
June 9 - USDA May Relax Standards for Organic Foods, By Scott J. Wilson, Los Angeles Times
Anheuser-Busch lager among products benefiting
With the "USDA organic" seal stamped on its label, Anheuser-Busch calls its Wild Hop Lager "the perfect organic experience."
"In today's world of artificial flavors, preservatives and factory farming, knowing what goes into what you eat and drink can just about drive you crazy," the Wild Hop website says. "That's why we have decided to go back to basics and do things the way they were meant to be naturally."
But many beer drinkers may not know that Anheuser-Busch has 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 action from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leaving uncertain whether some foods currently labeled "USDA organic" would continue to be produced.
The agency is considering a list of 38 nonorganic ingredients that will be permitted in organic foods. Because of the broad uses of these ingredients - as colorings and flavorings, for example - almost any type of manufactured organic food could be affected, including cereal, sausage, bread and beer.
Organic food advocates have fought to block approval of some or all of the proposed ingredients, saying consumers would be misled.
"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," said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Assn. of Finland, Minn., a nonprofit group that boasts 850,000 members.
USDA spokeswoman Joan Shaffer declined to comment on the plan.
Food manufacturers said this week that they were hoping the agency would approve the rules by Friday to continue labeling their products as organic.
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 its final list by the end of the day.
"They probably don't know what to do" Cummins said. "On the other hand, it's hard to believe they're going to make people change their labels, although that's what they should do."
...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 USDA was applying the law and gave the agency two years to revise its rules.
Organic food supporters had hoped that 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 research assistant with the Pesticide Education Project in Raleigh, N.C.
PD NOTE: They are not adding new ingredients. They are defining in one place that had been done more randomly before.
In addition to hops, the list includes 19 food colorings, two starches, casings for sausages and hot dogs, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin and a host of obscure ingredients (one, for instance, is a "bulking agent" and sweetener with the tongue-twisting name of fructooligosaccharides).
Under the agency's proposal, as much as 5% of a food product could be made with these ingredients and still get the "USDA organic" seal. Hops, though a major component of beer's flavor, are less than 5% of the final product because the beverage is mostly water.
PD NOTE: This is a serious error. They're not proposing the 5% "other" in organic processed food. That's how it always was in their rule. Also, you don't count water when assessing the percentage to determine if something is organic or not (since there's no definition of organic water). It's amazing to me the innaccuracies in even decent coverage on these issues.
...But while the two beers use 100% organic barley malt, less than 10% of the hops they use is organic. Hops are conelike flowers that grow on vines and impart a bitter taste on beer to offset the sweetness of malts.
PD NOTE: Notice how they lead the article with a scare story of an ingredient that's not organic - and way down here we find out that it's a minor ingredient and the main ingredient is organic. That just doesn't feel like proper journalism to me.
Anheuser-Busch said it simply couldn't find enough organic hops.
"There currently is only a small supply of organically grown hops available for purchase by brewers, and we purchased all we could for brewing these beers," said Doug Muhleman, vice president of brewing operations for Anheuser-Busch Inc.
But that argument doesn't wash with Russell Klisch, owner of Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery, which has been producing beer with 100% organic hops since 1996.
"If we can do it, we think Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest beer producer with virtually unlimited resources, should be able to follow our example," he said.
PD NOTE: I agree with this point.
Klisch said there were enough organic hops to satisfy 90% of the current organic beer demand in the U.S., but some brewers were put off by their higher price.
There are no organic hops commercially grown in the U.S.; most come from New Zealand, Britain and Germany. But Klisch has recently contracted with two Wisconsin farmers to grow some on their land. He doesn't understand why large brewers can't do the same.
"You're telling me that Anheuser-Busch can't find a little plot of ground somewhere to grow organic hops?" he said.
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 the intestines of cows, pigs or sheep, which have been used for centuries to wrap meat into sausages and frankfurters.
...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, a former member of the National Organic Standards Board. But fish oil producers said such contaminants could be screened out through proper processing.
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 a 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 U.S. and overseas - to decide for themselves what it means for a product to be available in organic form.
Despite years of discussion, the USDA has yet to provide certifiers with standardized guidelines for enforcing this rule.
"There is no effective mechanism for identifying a lack of organic 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."
PD NOTE: According to the New York Times article above, this is how it was until a judge said that the USDA had to make a list of what's not "commercially available" and thus worthy of an exception. That's what OTA means (see below) when they say that this clarification is an improvement from the prior situation, where each certifiying agency could make different decisions about what qualifies.
Large companies have a better chance of winning approval to use nonorganic ingredients because the amount they demand can exceed the small supply of organic equivalents, said Craig Minowa, environmental scientist for the Organic Consumers Assn.
OTA COMMENTARY ON THIS ISSUE
In response to FoodNavigator.com, May 16, 2007, Organic Trade Association
There has been some confusion in the press and among consumers about compliance with a U.S. District Court order issued as a result of actions that challenged the National Organic Standards in June, 2005. In March 2007, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) met and considered petitions from some processors desiring to be able to continue to market their products as currently formulated.
Currently, any non-organic agricultural ingredients, if an organic version is unavailable, are being allowed in the remaining 5 percent of the ingredients in products labeled as "Organic" (at least 95% of the ingredients in the products in this category must be organic ingredients, excluding water and salt, by weight).
That has changed with the Court order and USDA's agreement to tighten the qualifications for these ingredients.
Unfortunately, the FoodNavigator-usa.com May 16 headline "New rule could see more ingredients permitted for organics" is misleading and inaccurate. A more accurate headline would be: "Number of non-organic ingredients permitted in organic products will shrink."
PD NOTE: Interesting point, although I don't know that we can say shrink necessarily, just become more known.
When this proposed rule takes effect, only those non-organic agricultural products that have been successfully petitioned to NOSB and published in the Federal Register will be allowed when the organic counterparts are not available. Thus, the number of ingredients allowed under those circumstances will shrink dramatically compared with the current situation.
All other provisions of the regulations pertaining to non-organic agricultural ingredients in organic products remain in place. For example, all non-organic agricultural ingredients used in products in the "made with," and the "organic" label categories must come from farms that do not use sewage sludge or genetic engineered seeds, and irradiation is also prohibited for those non-organic agricultural ingredients as well.
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