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So Now What Exactly Does Certified Organic Mean? Is it Really Organic?

As though deciphering the myriad of food labels out there wasn't hard enough already, now lawmakers have added one more piece to the puzzle, this time regarding organic food.

It all started with a federal court ruling earlier in 2005, in which a federal court ruled to severely limit the use of synthetic substances in organic food. At face value, it seems this would be fine to organic manufacturers because, after all, doesn't "organic" imply no synthetics?

Congress has added a last-minute rider to a USDA spending bill that allows 38 synthetic ingredients in organic foods.

As it turns out, no. The court ruling prohibited 38 ingredients in all, among them ascorbic acid, a form of vitamin C used as an additive; pectin, a jam thickener; and hydrogen peroxide. It also banned dairy herds in the process of becoming organic from being fed feed that was partially non-organic.

According to some members of the organic community, including the Organic Valley farm coop in Wisconsin, the move was so severe that it would have threatened the industry's growth.

Organic Valley, for one, used hydrogen peroxide to sterilize their cartons. Under the new ruling, they would have been forced to change their organic label.

"When we took a look at what the [court] ruling did to organic milk, we were aghast," said Theresa Marquez of Organic Valley. "It would have a huge impact both financially and from a marketing point of view," Marquez said.

Congress has since intervened, adding a rider to a 2006 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spending bill that allows organic food makers to resume using the 38 synthetic ingredients.

Organic Trade Association Sought Synthetics Allowance

Ironically, it was the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents North American businesses that grow and market organic foods, which sought the intervention.

"Without those two key provisions, the face of the organic industry and the marketplace for organic products would have changed dramatically," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of OTA.

They maintained that businesses, farmers and consumers alike all supported the provisions. However, the Organic Consumer's Association (OCA) has a different story to tell.

They say the new legislation was prompted by giant food corporations new to the organic market and eager to earn their share of the growing industry. In fact, Congress received a reported 320,000 letters and phone calls from organic consumers who protested the rider being passed.

"The process was profoundly undemocratic," said Ronnie Cummins, director of OCA. "The end result is a serious setback for the multibillion-dollar alternative food and farming system that the organic community has painstakingly built up over the past 35 years ... Industry's stealth attack has unnecessarily damaged the standards that helped organic foods become the fastest growing sector in the food industry."

Others echo these sentiments, including Eden Foods CEO Michael Potter, who says the move is a bad one for both organic businesses and consumers.

Will the "USDA Organic" seal one day become sub-par?

What Does Organic Mean, Then?

While the organic industry is divided over the use of synthetics, one thing's for sure: the market is here to stay. Close to 40 percent of Americans buy organic foods, and sales are expected to reach $30 billion by 2007.

The organic market has grown so much, in fact, that the OCA reports "10 cents of every grocery store dollar spent by American consumers today goes for organic, made with organic, and natural products." So what does the "organic" label really mean?

All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines (verified by a USDA-approved independent agency):

  • Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for 3 years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license.

  • Prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms and irradiation.

  • Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation practices.

  • Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock.

  • Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals.

  • Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.

  • Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.

  • Keep records of all operations.

The OCA maintains that they will seek to reverse the rider in the future, but until then, keep in mind that while 38 synthetics are now allowed in organic foods, conventionally grown foods are allowed thousands. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a list of over 3,000 chemicals that are added to the processed food supply.

But some say you may want to keep an eye on organic standards in years to come, so what starts as 38 doesn't balloon without a limit.

"We're concerned that the amendment could allow a whole host of processing aids and synthetic substances to be added without any review," says Joe Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety.

Indeed, it seems some members of the organic community are bracing themselves for a fight. Says the OCA:

"If the USDA and the dominant companies in the OTA continue to ignore consumer and organic community expectations, especially the expectations of small and medium-sized farmers, retailers, and companies, we will set up our own label, certification, and accreditation system and point out to consumers that "USDA Organic" means "grade B organic," and that consumers looking for "grade A" will have to look for our new label."

Recommended Reading

Food Nutrition Labels: Six "Catches" You Need to Know

Is Pasteurization More of a Health Risk or a Safety Benefit?


Organic Consumers Association: US Lawmakers OK Some Synthetics for Organic Food

Organic Farmers Divided Over Synthetics

Food Consumer: Updated OCA talking points on safeguarding Organic Standards

Boise Weekly November 30, 2005

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