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More on Organic Standards Debate

Dec. 13, 2005

Feds are diluting the meaning of the organic label

Parts of '06 agriculture bill would allow too many synthetics to slip
through the process for food to be truly organic.

Chicago Tribune

Whenever I see the green and white "USDA Organic" label on food, I make two
assumptions: The product will cost a fortune, and it won't contain
artificial or synthetic ingredients.

But organics often do contain a small percentage of additives. And thanks to
a last-minute amendment slipped into an agricultural spending bill without
public discussion or debate, the standards for what constitutes "organic"
could be diluted even more than they already are.

After "organic" was finally defined and national standards were hammered out
in 2002, a product could use the two-tone "USDA Organic" label if at least
95 percent of its ingredients are organic. The remaining 5 percent could be
artificial or synthetic if they were on an approved list and the necessary
organic ingredients were unavailable or in short supply.

This infuriated Arthur Harvey, an organic-blueberry farmer from Maine, who
sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, charging that the standards were
too lax. Earlier this year, he won, meaning that food labeled "USDA Organic"
would not be able to contain any artificial ingredients. The ruling also
meant that several dozen approved synthetic substances used since 2002 would
be banned.

But the controversial rider, part of the 2006 agricultural appropriations
bill, changes the picture in two important ways: First, it weakens organic
standards because it reverses the Harvey court decision that banned the use
of synthetics. Worse, it gives the agriculture secretary the power to
approve new synthetic substances if no organic substitute is available,
without getting a review from the National Organic Standards Board advisory

This means hundreds of new chemically derived processing ingredients could
appear in food labeled "USDA Organic" without any public discussion. The
Organic Consumers Association says industry already has requested that 517
more synthetics be approved.

Some compromise is necessary, especially as the industry expands. But in
this period of tremendous growth, the organic industry shouldn't forget
where it came from and one of the reasons people buy organic: It's an
ecologically sound alternative to conventional food and farming practices.

The Organic Trade Association, which pushed for the legislation that watered
down the standards, still represents some small-scale farmers. But members
also include food giants such as Dean Foods and Kraft, which often use
synthetics in processing.

The USDA, meanwhile, backed by powerful agribusiness interests, shamelessly
has tried to dilute standards in the past. There's no question the organic
community needs to come together to protect consumer confidence. But
ultimately, it will be up to consumers.

One way is to start looking for additional label claims such as "no
synthetics used in production" if you're trying to buy as organic as
possible, said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst for
Consumers Union. Also, when buying organic, keep in mind that there is no
such thing as "organic" fish or seafood. If you see it advertised as
"organic," keep in mind it could have significant levels of contaminants
such as PCBs and mercury.