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 When 'Organic' Doesn't Quite Mean Organic 
by Organic Consumers Association - 7/18/2007
By Dan Shapley
The Daily Green, July 18, 2007
Straight to the Source

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?

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Provided by Organic Consumers Association on 7/18/2007
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