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How Does the Organic Industry Regulate Processing Aids?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's All About Organics page.

The crunch of a good organic apple. The taste of a sun-warmed organic tomato. The welcome chunk of an organic potato in a potato salad.  The distinctive flavor of an organic hamburger.

Without a doubt, fresh organic foods are a popular mainstay in grocery stores and at farmers markets across the nation. But what about processed organic foods such as applesauce or juice, tomato sauce, frozen meals, potato chips and sausages? Not to mention organic ice creams and desserts? Or jelly beans and cookies and even vodka? How are they processed and what "processing aids" are used to make them? Which ones are allowed and which ones are prohibited?

As a consumer, this is an important issue because the growth of processed organic foods has been explosive. It's definitely not just fresh produce or meat anymore.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of thought has gone into this. According to an Organic Trade Association backgrounder, the National Organic Standards Board in 1995 completed a "massive review" of materials used by organic producers. The board's recommendations served as the foundation for what is referred to as the "National List."

In 2003, shortly after the USDA's National Organic Program was officially implemented in 2002, the National List was updated and continues to be updated.

The importance of the list was highlighted back in 2001 in comments made by Keith Jones, then program manager of the USDA's National Organic Program, during a videoconference sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists.

"We know that there are a lot of common processing aids that are used across the country that are not on the National List," he said. "And if it's not on the National List, come Oct. 21, 2002, you cannot use that particular ingredient or processing aid and label a product as organic."

Although the emphasis was, and continues to be, on organics, food safety does come into the picture. For example, some of the processing aids are cleaning agents used to wash packaging equipment.  As investigations of food poisoning outbreaks have often revealed, potentially deadly pathogens can harbor in processing equipment.     


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