(Beyond Pesticides, June 27, 2007)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave interim approval last Friday to a controversial proposal that allows 38 non-organic ingredients to be used in foods carrying the “USDA Organic” seal. The agency also decided to allow an extra 60 days for public comment on the rule. The interim final rule can be viewed here:

Some manufacturers of organic foods are pushing for the change, arguing that the 38 items are minor ingredients in their products and are difficult to find in organic form. But consumers concerned about the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones in food production bombarded USDA with more than 1,000 complaints last month.

“If the label says organic, everything in that food should be organic,” wrote Kimberly Wilson of Austin, Texas, in one comment, according to the LA Times. “If they put something in the food that is not organic, they should not be able to call it organic. No exception.”

Under the 1990 Organic Foods Protection Act, USDA is required to identify which non-organic ingredients are allowed in organic food products. Current organic standards require products labeled “organic” to be made up of at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The remaining five percent can come from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, a list comprised of substances that are not otherwise commercially available as organic.

The list approved last week includes 19 food colorings, two starches, hops, sausage casings, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin, celery powder, dill weed oil, frozen lemongrass, Wakame seaweed, Turkish bay leaves and whey protein concentrate. Manufacturers will be allowed to use conventionally grown versions of these ingredients in foods carrying the USDA seal, provided that they cannot find organic equivalents and that non-organics comprise no more than five percent of the product.

A wide range of organic food could be affected, including cereal, sausage, bread, beer, pasta, candy and soup mixes. Under the new rule, Anheuser Busch will be allowed to sell its “Organic Wild Hops Beer” without using any organic hops at all. Additionally, sausages, brats, and breakfast links labeled as “USDA Organic” are now allowed to contain intestines from factory-farmed animals raised on chemically grown feed, synthetic hormones, and antibiotics.

Supporters of the USDA rule change say that by allowing small amounts of non-organic ingredients to be used, more products that are mostly organic can be developed. This encourages the development of organic farming, they say.

Advocates for organic integrity argue that the majority of the 38 proposed ingredients are available organically; loopholes in the rules intended safeguard stem from USDAs failure to enforce its own guidelines. USDA has failed to provide its 96 certifying agents with standardized guidelines for determining commercial availability of an ingredient. In a letter to USDA, Pennsylvania Certified Organic wrote, “There is no effective mechanism for identifying a lack of organic ingredients. It is a very challenging task to prove a negative regarding the organic supply.” Merrill Clark, of Roseland Organic Farms in Michigan, said, “More than 90 percent of the food/agricultural items on the proposed list of materials in this rule are items that can easily be grown organically.”

Organic food sales have more than doubled in the last five years, reaching $16.9 billion in the U.S. last year. The booming market has drawn in big food makers such as General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co. and Kraft Foods Inc. to what was formerly an industry of mostly mom-and-pop farms. Under USDA regulations that define “organic,” crops must be grown without chemical fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering or pesticides, while animals must be raised without antibiotics and growth hormones and given access to the outdoors.

USDA first issued its proposal May 15, followed by a seven-day public comment period that many people on both sides of the issue decried as far too short. As a result, USDA announced Friday that it would allow 60 more days for its National Organic Program to collect public comments before issuing its final rule.

USDA has allowed small amounts of conventionally grown ingredients in products carrying its seal since its certification program started in 2002. But two years ago, a judge said the agency was misinterpreting the law and ordered it to tighten its approval system and allow only non-organic ingredients that have been added to its National List before they can be used in products carrying the agency’s seal. Unless the interim decision is overturned, the 38 ingredients will join five others that were previously approved for the National List: corn starch, water-extracted gums, kelp, unbleached lecithin and pectin.

As Carl Chamberlain, of the Pesticide Education Project, said, “Adding 38 new ingredients is not just a concession by the USDA, it is a major blow to the organic movement in the U.S. because it would erode consumer confidence in organic standards.”

TAKE ACTION: Tell USDA what you think about the new rule allowing 38 non-organic ingredients to be included in organic-labeled products. Directions for submitting comments can be found online. Be sure to include Docket Number AMS-TM-07-0062. Or, for a quick way to take action, use the Organic Consumers Associations online web form to automatically submit comments to USDA.