ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

How the Media Missed the Organic Story

By Samuel Fromartz

The USDA's recent approval of 38 non-organic ingredients in organic food products was widely portrayed in media reports as evidence that the USDA was watering down organic standards.

This is a standard interpretation - that, at the behest of agribusiness, the USDA is constantly chipping away at the integrity of organic food regulations, making it easier for big companies to subvert what organic food is all about. They were doing so now by including these 38 non-organic ingredients in organic food.

The only problem was this was flat out wrong.

Why? First, because the USDA has no statutory authority over these non-organic ingredients. The body that oversees the so-called National List of these ingredients - and which stands as the final arbiter of what goes into organic food products - is a citizens advisory panel known as the National Organic Standards Board.

As section 6157 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which governs organic food, makes clear:

The National List established by the Secretary shall be based upon a proposed national list or proposed amendments to the National List developed by the National Organic Standards Board.

The Secretary may not include exemptions for the use of specific synthetic substances in the National List other than those exemptions contained in the Proposed National List or Proposed Amendments to the National List.

In other words, not even the Secretary of Agriculture can overrule the decisions of the NOSB with regards to what goes on this list. This was explicitly written into the law by Sen. Patrick Leahy in 1990 precisely to prevent the list from being controlled by the USDA (a point I explain more fully in my book).

So who sits on the NOSB? It is made up of certifiers, farmers, retailers, scientists, and food processors, including big and small companies and those with no industry affiliation at all. Now you can argue about the composition of the NOSB but it would be a gross misrepresentation to say the members are interested in watering down and subverting organic food regulations. If they were, we should all stop buying organic food now. But they aren't, so we shouldn't.

There have also been instances where the USDA has re-interpreted or put forth new regulations, leading to a political backlash from organic advocates that forced the department to reverse course. This was not what happened here, however.

Secondly, the approval of the 38 ingredients was actually a dramatic tightening of organic food regulations that resulted from a law suit brought by a small organic blueberry farmer from Maine, named Arthur Harvey. But I saw no headlines screaming, "Organic Food Regulations Tightened! Numerous Non-Organic Ingredients Disallowed."

In a recent public email, Jim Riddle, who trains organic certifiers and was one of NOSB's more outspoken (and radical) members during his tenure as chairman, explains:

I received a call from a reporter, informing me that 38 non-organic ingredients had been approved by USDA to be added to the National List. He did not mention that the USDA had approved the substances in an Interim Final Rule, which allows for 60 days of public comment. Since returning home, I have become aware of heated rhetoric on this issue, with charges of “Sneak Attack”, “Undermining the Organic Standard”, etc. I would like to say a few words to put this issue into perspective.

Previous to the Harvey ruling, (which became final on June 9, 2007), certifiers had allowed processors to use non-organic ingredients in up to 5% of an “organic” product, (which must contain at least 95% organic ingredients), if the processor could demonstrate a good faith, but unsuccessful, effort to source the ingredient(s) from organic sources. Hundreds, if not thousands, of non-organic ingredients had been allowed.

If all 38 minor ingredients are added to the National List, it will bring to 43 the number of non-organic ingredients that can be used in “organic” products, if the manufacturer can demonstrate to the certifier that organic forms are not commercially available. This is a significant narrowing from the previous, pre-Harvey situation. (emphasis added)

While I have serious concerns with a few of the petitioned items, including hops, fish oil, and “natural” casings ... I urge my colleagues to direct your concerns to the USDA. To exaggerate and/or misrepresent this issue in the press weakens confidence in organic foods, harms organic farmers, and undermines the growth of this ecologically-sound production system.

The only thing I would add to Riddle's comment is that every ingredient must be reviewed by the NOSB before it gets on the National List. There's rarely 100-percent agreement on these items, only consensus, reflected in votes by the NOSB. (You can read the transcripts of meetings at the NOSB's web site if you have a few hours. They are actually very informative. Or better yet, attend one of their public meetings). Now is the opportunity to comment, if you oppose any or all of the 38 items, though I think it doubtful that the USDA will force the NOSB to reconsider the matter.

Where the media erred was in trying to find evidence to fit the premise that organic regulations were being loosened. Had they looked more deeply into the matter they might have realized that the evidence led to an entirely different conclusion.