By F. Timothy Martin
As an industry association
pushes Congress to make an end-run around recently revived organic standards,
consumer advocates are scrambling to keep standards strict.
Oct 5 - A battle
over the rules for including synthetic ingredients in organic foods has prompted
consumer advocates to step up their campaign against a move they say threatens
to degrade organic food standards.
At issue is a rider sponsored by the
Organic Trade Association (OTA) and attached to the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations
Bill that would continue to legalize the inclusion of dozens of synthetic ingredients
in foods bearing the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) "organic" label.
The OTA represents a variety of organic producers, but is increasingly accused
of promoting the interests of larger corporations such as Kraft, Dean Foods and
Dole, which have all acquired market share in the fast-growing organic-foods sector.
Appropriations Bill unanimously passed the Senate on September 22, but as a compromise,
lawmakers agreed to postpone their decision on the OTA rider.
this does is it takes away the traditional control of the organic community over
organic standards and centralizes control in the hands of the politically-appointed
Secretary of Agriculture," explained Ronnie Cummins, executive director of
the Organic Consumers Association, a Minnesota-based industry watchdog. "This
rider shows they don’t have any more respect to consult with the traditional
The final rule governing allowable synthetic ingredients
was established in 2000 after years of debate, which at one point included an
attempt by the USDA to allow irradiation, genetically modified organisms and sewage
sludge in organic production. Adopted in 2002, the rule has permitted foods labeled
"organic" -- meaning 95 percent of the final product must be organic
-- to include up to 38 synthetic ingredients without mention on the product’s
label. These include substances such as ethylene, used to ripen bananas, and the
synthetic lye that gives pretzels made by Neuman’s Own Organics their golden
sheen. But this summer a 73-year-old organic blueberry farmer from Maine named
Arthur Harvey won a court appeal against the USDA’s standards, arguing that
federal regulations guiding organic food standards were less stringent than the
original legislation had intended. The decision, among other things, places greater
limits on the number of synthetic ingredients allowed in foods with the USDA "organic"
Small organic producers applauded the outcome. They argued that big
corporations were behind efforts to water down industry standards. By adhering
to the original guidelines, they said, organic producers would be forced to be
more diligent in upholding standards, thus retaining consumer confidence in organic
But the current rider, say opponents, would scale back the Harvey
ruling, effectively re-imposing the state of affairs that previously existed.
They say it would also make it easier for the USDA to permit up to 500 additional
synthetic ingredients without rigorous review from the National Organics Standards
Board, which regulates organic food production.
By caving in to corporate
pressure to approve hundreds of new synthetics, critics worry there won’t
be adequate safeguards put in place.
Moreover, language in the rider would
loosen restrictions on the use of non-organic ingredients in cases where organic
ingredients are deemed too costly and allow farmers to feed dairy cows with more
non-organic feed and still apply the organic label to their milk and cheese products,
according to the Organic Consumers Association.
The Organic Trade Association
disputes their critics’ interpretation of the congressional rider and says
that for decades a variety of synthetics have been safely used in small quantities
during food production. The OTA points out that many permitted synthetic ingredients
are just food-handling substances used, for example, to clean equipment, and are
never directly added to the final product. Without the inclusion of benign synthetics,
they say, rising production costs would make organic products less affordable.
are a market-driven success story," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director
of OTA, in an interview with The NewStandard. "The government doesn’t
subsidize organics so that they’re competitive in price. In order to remain
a success there needs to be products to buy – and they need to be affordable
to a certain degree."
DiMatteo believes that limiting allowable synthetics
would force many products into the less desirable "made with" label
designating foods composed of at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
said critics of the rider are "shooting themselves in the foot," suggesting
their high standards will shut them out of their own market.
[these synthetic ingredients] are not allowed for use in the organic category,
it’s going to take a lot of research and development money to find substitutes.
Only the big companies will be able to invest. If part of this drive is to fight
against big companies," she concluded, "it may backfire."
a number of smaller organic companies see it differently.
not the small companies that are pushing for this [rider], rather it’s the
large, publicly traded companies that have become subsidiaries of Kraft, Smuckers
and other big corporations," said Tonya Martin, a spokesperson for Eden Foods,
an independent organic food company that makes EdenSoy milk and other products.
"Farmers have worked so hard to grow an authentically organic product. For
them to turn their crops over to a company that’s going to adulterate their
food is a violation of trust."
So what’s wrong with a dab of synthetic
lye coated on the outside of an otherwise entirely organic pretzel? Most of the
synthetic ingredients that would be allowed are considered benign – at least
for now. But by caving in to corporate pressure to approve hundreds of new synthetics,
critics worry there won’t be adequate safeguards put in place.
of these approved substances are scary," Cummins told TNS, "but if you
change the process of rigorous review to a decision made by an appointed USDA
bureaucrat, you open the door wide for massive erosion of standards."
Organic Consumers Association fears that although the Senate reached a compromise
to gather more information and wait on a vote for the proposed rule changes, lawmakers
may nevertheless slip language into the bill as it is being discussed in the joint
House-Senate Conference Committee. Consumer groups say opponents have sent over
70,000 letters to members of Congress and have encouraged countless other phone
calls. Cummins says they face an uphill battle, but that he remains hopeful.
only thing that’s going to stop this is a massive outpouring by the grassroots,
and based on what we’ve seen this week, it’s already started happening."
© 2005 The NewStandard.