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When 'Organic' Doesn't Quite Mean Organic

If an organic pig provides meat for an organic sausage, shouldn't it also provide the organic sausage casings?

Not according to the Department of Agriculture, which allows a “USDA Organic" sticker to be slapped on the non-organic casing of an organic sausage.

Natural sausage casings ”” that is, the cleaned intestines of pigs, sheep and other animals ”” are one of 38 ingredients on a USDA list that would be allowed in foods that are otherwise made up of organic ingredients. The proposal, which formalizes a five-year-old facet of the federal organic labeling law and came at the behest of a judge, has embroiled the growing organic industry in controversy.

Wrapped up in that “organic" sausage is a mix of issues ”” about the level of purity demanded by organic farmers and consumers, the benefits and limits of government regulation, the workings of a market economy and the complexity of the modern food system.

The organic movement started as a reaction to the industrialized nature of the food system. It spurned chemical pesticides and fertilizers, emphasized composting and other methods to bolster the health of soil and natural disease-fighting nutrients in plants, and it smiled on small-scale local production.

The USDA's 2002 organic labeling program codified the movement, setting a series of national standards that regulated organic foods. It set four basic rules for using the word “organic" on foods.

  1. Foods that are 100% organic can be labeled “100% organic" and bear the “USDA organic" seal.
  2. Foods that are 95% organic can be labeled “organic" if the remaining 5% of ingredients cannot be found in an organic form. They too can bear the “USDA Organic" seal.
  3. Foods that are 70% organic can include the phrase “made with organic" to describe those organic ingredients.
  4. Foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients can have the word “organic" only in their lists of ingredients.

The current controversy centers on the 5% of non-organic ingredients allowed in foods labeled “organic."

Until a lawsuit prompted the USDA to publicly list those exempt ingredients, certifying agents had free reign to allow the labeling of “organic" foods if they were satisfied the 5% of ingredients were unavailable in organic form. The USDA took petitions from food producers and manufacturers about which non-organic ingredients it should allow, and whittled the list from 600 to 38.

The publication of the list in June revealed to organic food consumers that the seaweed in their organic miso soup, the hops in their organic beer and the chipotle chile peppers in their organic chile were not organic. Most of the other ingredients are relatively obscure colorings, flavorings and ingredients that may make the likes of yogurt look and feel right, but aren't recognizable to most consumers.

Like several of the other ingredients, the listing of natural sausage casings seems counterintuitive. If a pig is raised on organic feed, slaughtered in a certified organic plant, and made into sausage, shouldn't the same pig provide natural casings for that sausage?

As with several of the other ingredients, however, the realities of the modern farming and food production system prove even more counter-intuitive. “Harvesting" intestines for sausage casings, it turns out, is a specialty that many slaughterhouses don't offer, and none of the small-scale hog farmers or processors interviewed by The Daily Green could fathom a certified organic slaughterhouse getting into the business.

“I'm not aware of them being available anywhere," said Mike Lorentz, CFO of Lorentz Meats, a growing business based in Minnesota that does every part of the organic meat processing process from slaughter to packaging.

At one time in America, small regional slaughterhouses catered to local, family farms. But the industrialization of the meat industry resulted in a few big firms handling most of the processing in large centralized plants, and many of those small slaughterhouses disappeared in lockstep with the demise of the family farm and encroachment of suburbia.

“The problem with the little guys like ourselves is finding a processor that can do it," said Denise Brownlee, an owner of Wil-Den Family Farms, which makes sausages and other products from naturally raised (not certified organic) pigs. “They are so few and far between."

Even as boutique farmers are finding growing markets for their sausages at farmers' markets and the like, they often find it harder to process their animals.

Keith Cooper, owner of Sweet Briar Farms in Oregon, estimated that setting up shop to process his own pigs, which are not certified organic but which meet nearly all the USDA requirements, would cost about $500,000.

Lorentz Meats is expanding its business into markets where a concentration of small farmers in a region need a small-scale organic processing plant. But even Lorentz could foresee no business for organic sausage casings because there would not be a great enough concentration of organic farmers in any one area to supply enough animals, and because the “harvesting" process is so difficult. Most natural casings, he said, are imported.

“I think it would be so cost-prohibitive," he said, adding that sausage makers would opt for skinless organic sausages rather than paying for organic natural casings.

It's a case of “organic" and related marketing labels helping to cater to consumer demand for local and sustainable foods, at a time when the industrialized agribusiness has already run away with the means of production. One farmer, who pays close attention to every environmental and ethical aspect of her business, admitted she didn't even know where her sausage casings originate.

“I guess I've never really thought about it," she said.

Other options for organic sausage makers are off the table because they are synthetic and represent “a step away from the ”˜minimally-processed' food paradigm which is at the heart of the organic production philosophy," according to the petition by Organic Valley-Organic Prairie, North American Natural Sausage Casings Association and Applegate Farms to include natural casings on the USDA list. Non-organic sausage is most often encased with peelable cellulose or eatable collagen.

Since organic natural sausage casings are not available, and since the non-organic casing represents only about 1% of the sausage, the product meets the USDA requirements for an organic label.

Whether or not that is acceptable is a question for consumers ”” and it's not a simple one. (The issue is so “sensitive," according to a public relations officer for Organic Valley, that the organic foods giant deferred comment on this story to the Organic Trade Association.)

On the one hand, consumers want fundamental ingredients in their organic foods to be organic ”” particularly with sausage because there is a high level of concern about feed lots and other industrial-scale meat processing that can breed disease, said Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist with the Organic Consumers Association, which opposes the inclusion of several ingredients on the USDA list.

“That's one of those ingredients that is a really touchy issue for a lot of organic consumers," he said, noting that sausage casings is the No. 1 ingredient he would like to see removed from the USDA list. “Diseases run more rampant in factory farm settings because they are living in settings that aren't conducive to their good health."

For him, a non-organic sausage casing makes an otherwise organic sausage “off-limits."

On the other hand, many consumers don't aim for such purity ”” particularly if they know that the meat is being raised ethically and in an environmentally sound manner.

Many hog farmers raising animals according to various “natural" standards have found that customers come back once they learn about the practices each farm employs, even if they are not certified organic.

The 12-year old Niman Ranch uses a network of small farms certified by the Animal Welfare Institute. They may feed hogs non-organic corn, but otherwise meet USDA organic standards, said Paul Willis, a founder and director of pork for Niman Ranch, and the extra expense isn't worth the “piece of paper" that would certify his farming practices.

He compared his Iowa farm ”” a 20-acre pasture on 900 acres and 2,000 hogs ”” to an industrial farm down the road that has 6,000 pigs inside a building of no more than a couple acres. He composts pig manure on his fields, unlike his neighbor, who pumps thousands of gallons of liquid waste underground, where it can leach into the Iowa River.

His customers know his standards, and buy even know he doesn't have the “organic" label.

“I guess," Willis said, “it comes right down to how much of a purist you want to be."


SAFE FOOD WATCH: Truth In Organics
A special report about the USDA organic program, and the government proposal to allow dozens of non-organic ingredients in certified “organic" foods.

The 38 Non-organic Ingredients In ”˜USDA Organic' Foods

What They Are, How They're Used, And How They Made The List

When “Organic" Doesn't Quite Mean Organic
If A Sausage Is Organic, Why Isn't The Casing?
In-fighting In The Organic Movement

Two Prominent Organic Advocates Argue Over The Future Of Organic, And How To Grow The Market
How To Comment On The USDA's Proposed Non-Organic List

The Public Has Until August 28 To Weigh In

Easy Organic Recipe Ideas
Great Ideas For Greening Your Diet

Organic Schmanic. Why Should I Pay More For Food?
The Reasons For Buying Organic Foods Keep Growing, And Include Some You've Probably Never Thought Of.

Organic Labels Come In Different Shapes and Sizes
A Guide To Organic Labels And Their Confusing Cousins

Blog: Organic Labels / Garden Division
Leslie Land