Organic Consumers Association

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OCA Forces Anheuser-Busch to Back Down -- MSNBC Covers Organic Standards Controversy

You know organic has gone mainstream when Wal-Mart starts selling it. In fact, organic products are the fastest growing segment of the agricultural market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says organic sales jumped 22 percent last year. A growing number of people are willing to pay a premium price to eat what they consider to be superior products and to support farming techniques that are better for the land.

But what does “organic" really mean? According to USDA regulations, a product called “100 percent organic" must contain all organic ingredients.  If the label just says “organic," a processed food product can have up to 5 percent non-organic ingredients by weight ”” if those ingredients are on the USDA's “national list" of approved non-organic ingredients.

Until last month, there were only five ingredients on the list: cornstarch, water-extracted gum, kelp, unbleached lecithin, and pectin. But the list just got longer and there's quite a debate taking place as to whether this is good or bad for consumers.

What just happened?

On June 9th, the USDA added 38 non-organic ingredients to the national list: 19 food colorings, two starches, casings for sausages, hops, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin, celery powder, dill weed oil, frozen lemon grass, and a sweetener called fructooligosaccharides.

These 38 items, chosen from more than 600 requested by food manufacturers, can now be used as minor ingredients in 95 percent organic products if a company can prove to its certifier that an organic version is not available in the quality or quantity needed...

Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, agrees that a strictly limited list of approved non-organic ingredients is a positive step. But he says three of the items ”” hops, fish oil, and sausage casings ”” “are outrageous" and should not be allowed in any product called organic.

He opposes the use of non-organic hops because they are essential to making beer. He worries that fish oil might be contaminated with potentially dangerous chemicals. And he's totally opposed to sausage casings ”” intestines ”” from conventionally raised farm animals.

Clearly, the organics industry is at a crossroads. Big food companies are trying to capture a market that has been created over the last 25 years by dedicated small farmers and producers.

Critics say the expanded national list will make it easier for big corporations to sell organic products without going to all the trouble ”” and expense ”” of finding all organic ingredients...

The 'Budweiser Exception'

Those who fear the entry of big companies into the organic marketplace often point the finger at Anheuser-Busch. In September of 2006, the nation's largest brewer introduced two organic beers, Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Pale Ale. Both were made with 100 percent organic barley malt, but mostly non-organic hops.

Doug Muhelman, vice president of brewing operations at Anheuser-Busch, told me the company's organic certifier said this was allowed because hops are less than 5 percent of the ingredients by weight.

“We figured that over time as demand grew, we would encourage farmers to bring more organic hops into the market," he said.

Cummins of the Organic Consumers Organization blasts Anheuser-Busch for not making more of an effort to find organic ingredients. “Consumers are not going to pay a premium price for a substandard organic product," he says.

“We never intended to deceive anyone or cheapen the product," Muhelman says. “We were naïve when we went into this."

But Anheuser-Busch now uses 100 percent organic hops, even though that will reduce the amount of organic beer they can brew this year.

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© 2007 MSNBC Interactive

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