Shades of Green
Congress passes rule that could water down organic label.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Sales of organically certified foods are leaping by 20 percent every year as more people turn on to the organic-is-better philosophy. But an Oct. 28 vote by the US House of Representatives could cheapen the organic label, warn elected officials and industry activists.
Even if a worst-case scenario doesn’t pan out and previously strict rules are reinstated, the Republican-controlled Congress’ vote illustrates one of the glaring pitfalls in achieving mainstream status, as mega corporations like Kraft and Wal-Mart aggressively pursue a slice of the booming organic sales market, which totaled $15 billion last year.
The current discord revolves around a few paragraphs inserted into the $100 billion food and farm spending bill for 2006 the night before it was set to be voted on in the House.
The bill, passed by the Senate last week and expected to be signed by the president soon, includes language that temporarily eliminates existing rules prohibiting synthetic substances in organic foods, while also loosening rules for conventional dairy farms that want to convert to organic.
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, says he was shocked when he read the provisions the morning of the vote. Farr argues they weaken the organic label by allowing chemically-derived ingredients into organic products without strict review. And, Farr says, the language was inserted into the bill without any debate in the agricultural appropriations committee that adjourned the previous afternoon.
While he voted in favor of the bill—the organic language formed a miniscule part of it—Farr quickly sounded the alarm about what had taken place.
“Consumers are willing to pay more for organic food because they know organic produce and products offer the most authentic and verified form of natural food possible,” Farr says. “If the history of organics has taught us anything, it is that changes should follow an inclusive and transparent process that unites, rather than divides, the organic community. Backroom deals without proper debate undermine the integrity of the entire organic industry.”
Born out of a conflict that arose over a recent court ruling, the bill’s language essentially removes most criteria for the inclusion of synthetics in processed organic foods. Until now, a very small number of synthetics—vitamins, for example—have been allowed in foods labeled organic as part of the 5 percent of ingredients that don’t have to be organic to qualify for the USDA organic label. (Only “whole organic” foods are 100 percent free of non-organic, non-synthetic substances.)
However, to the chagrin of many, the bill’s language didn’t specify a new criteria for synthetics, thus tossing the ball into USDA’s court to create new rules that could possibly swing the door wide open for future synthetic ingredients in organic foods.
In addition, the bill creates a loophole whereby an increasing number of conventionally grown cows—meaning those shot up with antibiotics, hormones and fed genetically engineered feed—can produce “organic” milk and cheese simply by being transferred to an organic farm, thus defeating the intent of the original law.
Even the most ardent opponents of these provisions admit that they don’t know for sure whether USDA will weaken organic standards or not—some are even optimistic it won’t.
But many are fuming over how the bill’s language was inserted and—more importantly—who’s behind it. Ronnie Cummins, co-founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, says a dangerous shifting of alliances is taking place in the organic community.
“Giant fruit processing companies and supermarket chains are the real power behind this language,” Cummins says. “That’s the difference this time: big players in corporate America are further entrenched, they’re on the board of the [Organic Trade Association], and they’re now a dominant voice, definitely.”
Farr’s spokeswoman, Jessica Schafer, says powerful lobbyists for Altria Group—owner of Kraft Foods and Philip Morris—and Dean Foods swayed Republican lawmakers at the final moment to insert the language into the farm funding bill.
But it was the Organic Trade Association—the largest organic trade group in North America—that actually wrote the language and submitted it to Congress.
When the trade association’s president was asked if she favored the manner in which the language was muscled into the bill, especially since it flew in the face of traditional consensus making, she wavered.
“I guess it really has to be asked of everyone who’s saying these things, What do they think is traditional?” Katherine Damatio says. “Secondly, no one has control over what Congress does…people could make all sorts of assumptions about this that they want.”
When pressed further, Damatio couldn’t “say one way or the other” if she would have preferred that a more open process had taken place.
“The outcome of the amendment has been approved,” Damatio says. “That’s what we wanted to see happen.”
Damatio says she sees no reason for USDA to weaken organic rules as a result of the bill’s language.
“What would they gain, except a lot of public outcry for taking things out everyone agrees should be in?” she says.
But the damage may already have been done.
As the organic industry splits into two opposing camps—strict traditionalists and those who don’t want to be hemmed in by idealistic notions of hippie farmers—these sorts of public battles may sow skeptical consumers.
“If people start seeing reasons to worry about the value of the organic label, it will help contribute to an erosion of trust,” says Mark Lipson of the Organic Research Farming Foundation in Santa Cruz. “I don’t think this [bill] will change that. But it could be a piece of a larger chain of events that does.”
Cummins says this isn’t the first time they’ve had to fight efforts to dilute organic standards, and it probably won’t be the last. He suggested that leery consumers can avoid confusion altogether by buying only “whole organic” foods, which don’t allow any synthetic or non-organic ingredients.
“It’s sad,” Cummins says of the recent bill’s language. “It’s impossible to maintain strict organic standards when we have a government that’s not as concerned with what the public wants, but with what big contributors want.”