ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Organic Through Rose Colored Glasses

(Editors Note: We are correcting the misstatement in the original version of this post that Wolaver's sources organic hops. They do not. We explain their position, beginning in the 12th paragraph below).

By Samuel Fromartz

The news that the USDA was on the verge of approving 38 non-organic agricultural ingredients for use in organic food got a lot of attention this week.

The Los Angeles Times
first picked up on the story, then the rest of the media pack, and the early trust seemed to be: the USDA is being pushed by lobbyists to loosen organic food regulations!

But is that the case?

First, a little background about these 38, background that requires us to get deep-and-dirty in the world of USDA organic regulations.

A product can only be labeled organic if 95 percent of the ingredients are in fact organic. (A standard that is accepted globally under various organic regimes).

In that remaining 5 percent, non-organic ingredients can be used, but only if specifically approved by the citizens advisory panel known as the National Organic Standards Board. If they pass muster with the NOSB, they are placed on the so-called National List by the Secretary of Agriculture and allowed to be used.

There was one exception however: non-organic agricultural ingredients had an express pass to get into an organic product. If the organic processor told his certifier than an organic agricultural ingredient was not available, then the certifier could issue a pass for the non-organic version to be used. No review by the NOSB, no placement on the National List. Just a pass by the certifier.

Can't get organic turmeric? Then go ahead use the non-organic version in the 5-percent. Can't get organic hops for beer. Use non-organic hops, again at a 5-percent threshold.

Well, an organic blueberry farmer from Maine, Arthur Harvey, had a big problem with this and sued the USDA. He won in 2005 and the court gave the USDA two years to place specific non-organic agricultural ingredients on the National List. The two years expired June 8, 2007.

So while all the stories are screaming – THE USDA IS GOING TO APPROVE 38 NON-ORGANIC INGREDIENTS! – the real news is that USDA is going to drastically limit the current widespread use of non-organic agricultural ingredients to just 38 and only after they get a a review by the NOSB. This is all thanks to Harvey.

That said, I have a problem with some of these 38 that got by the NOSB.

Take hops, which are getting a blanket exemption. The big boys like Anheuser-Busch argue that they can't find enough organic hops, so need an exemption to use non-organic hops. This is apparently a widespread issue, since a micro-brewer like Wolaver's Organic in Vermont also told me too that they had trouble finding hops. The only source appropriate for the taste profile of their beer comes from New Zealand. One farmer they were sourcing from in the State of Washington (pictured below, at  Wolaver's web site) pulled out of the market a year ago because of the challenges of growing the crop organically.

But why can't Anheuser-Busch and Wolaver's enlist more growers into the market, where organic hops go for three times the price of conventional?  After all, they have had two years since the court ruling in the Harvey case to plan their future demand.

Morgan Wolaver agreed that more needed to be done to entice growers into the market. But in the meantime, they need the exemption if they are going to make organic pale ale. Each year they show their certifier that organic hops are not available and each year they get an exemption.

"How do you build organic demand into an exemption?" Wolaver asked. "It gets back to the breweries to really push this." 

Exactly. And if they don't push on the demand side, then the supply will never be there. To be fair, 98-percent of the ingredients in Wolaver's Organic beer are in fact organic.

The other exemption I find questionable is the use of non-organic casings in organic sausages. The rules on organic meat are strict. No animal qualifies as organic unless it was raised organically from the last trimester of gestation. That means the mother has to be organic too, at least in the last third of its pregnancy. If the offspring does not meet this hurdle, then it's not organic.

Except for intestines. For some reason, intestines used in sausage making will get a pass. I find this curious, since the existence of organic meat suggests that organic intestines are also around. And somebody will have a great incentive to make them into casings if they are required.

I spoke with Jim Riddle, former chairman of the NOSB, and he raised questions about the exemption for fish oil, since organic fish isn't even defined yet. He also pointed out the public was only given 7 days to comment on these issues, which is almost as bad as having no comment period at all.

But should all non-organic ingredients be banned, even if used in minute amounts like colorings? Well, then a huge amount of organic products would vanish, crimping demand for the organic ingredients used in the other 95 percent of these products. You are going to have these exemptions unless you want to take the next logical position and ban many organic processed food products, a position that more than a few organic advocates take, including Harvey. But the consensus, globally, in organic circles - and that includes farmers and NGOs not just Big Organic - has been to allow a select few in once they are reviewed.

So the question always becomes where to draw the line. Ethicurean's post on organic annatto considers this issue, although I don't necessarily agree with the conclusion.

In an ideal world, organic farmers will come up with all the organic agricultural ingredients that processors need.

My worry is that the non-organic ingredients will become the de facto ingredients and no one will step up to the plate to try and produce organic ones. Or that once given an exemption, processors will argue that the organic version is not in the right "form" or doesn't meet "quality" standards, another way it can justify using the non-organic versions.

Right now, though, organic processors are in a pinch. The USDA sent out a notice to certifiers on June 8 reminding them that they must avoid using non-organic ingredients (not on the National List) as of midnight. In the meantime, the USDA has not yet approved any of the 38 replacements, as of today.

So, all those beer makers using non-organic hops and all those sausage makers using non-organic casings are not in compliance with the law, if they are still using those ingredients today.

I wonder what they're doing? Hopefully ramping up organic ingredient supplies as they should have done all along.