The Side Dish: Why You Should Question Your Organics

Back in the day, when I first moved to Seattle, I was confounded when I found myself in a PCC Natural Market one day. The co-op vibe was completely new to me, and moreso, I didn’t understand what the big difference was between the natural and organic selection of items, and the plain old supermarkets I’d be shopping at my whole life. It took me a few visits to get used to the differences in taste – the foods were less sweet than I was used to, with some items nearly bland.

What I soon realized, however, that it was the lack of high fructose corn syrup, and other additives I had grown used to, that made the taste difference. By the time we started the catering business years later, I had become appreciative of the lack of preservatives and added flavors and colors, and my tasting palate had adjusted accordingly.

With the continued interest in organics, and the lack of stringent guidelines determining organic vs. natural vs. partially organic/natural, however, I’ve noticed more mainstream companies running with the buzzwords in an effort to sell more product. (Read our ‘Are You Getting Localwashed?’ to learn more.) Unfortunately, according to a new report from the Washington Post, it looks like my concerns have a bit of validity.

“The big boys like Kraft realized they could really cash in by filling the shelves with products with the organics seal,” [organic farmer Arthur] Harvey said.

In the article posted this morning, Post staffers highlighted the discombobulation behind the USDA Certified Organic label, what’s really going on with the organic labeling laws, and how much is being shifted (purchased?) behind the scenes at the USDA.

A few interesting organic labeling facts from the article:

  • Under the original organics law, 5% of a USDA-certified organic product can consist of non-organic substances, provided they are approved by the National Organic Standards Board. That list has grown from 77 to 245 substances since it was created in 2002.
  • The Organic Trade Association, which represents corporations such as Kraft, Dole and Dean Foods, lobbied for and received language in a 2006 appropriations bill allowing certain synthetic food substances in the preparation, processing and packaging of organic foods.
  • Synthetic fatty acids, often developed with harmful neurotoxins, are allowed in organic baby formula.
  • Original organic labeling laws allowed the use of non-organic pesticides on organic farms, as well as non-organic fish feed, which contain Mercury and PCBs, for organic livestock.
  • Under Barbara Robinson, the National Organic Program has repeatedly opted not to issue standards spelling out how organic food must be grown, treated or produced. In 65 instances since 2002, the standards board has made recommendations that have not been acted upon, creating a haphazard system in which the private certifiers have set their own standards for what products can carry the federal label.

“It will unravel everything we’ve done if the standards can no longer be trusted,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who sponsored the federal organics legislation. “If we don’t protect the brand, the organic label, the program is finished. It could disappear overnight.”

And my favorite quote:

Joe Smillie, a [USDA] board member, said he thinks that advocates for the most restrictive standards are unrealistic and are inhibiting the growth of organics.

“People are really hung up on regulations,” said Smillie, who is also vice president of the certifying firm Quality Assurance International, which is involved in certifying 65 percent of organic products found on supermarket shelves. “I say, ‘Let’s find a way to bend that one, because it’s not important.’ . . . What are we selling? Are we selling health food? No. Consumers, they expect organic food to be growing in a greenhouse on Pluto. Hello? We live in a polluted world. It isn’t pure. We are doing the best we can.”

Give me a break! Will money always be the determining factor in Washington DC? I hope not. How disheartening to know the folks regulating our food, our health care system, our laws are ‘doing the best they can.’ According to the article, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wants to ‘protect the organic label’, with his Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan (who, questionably, helped write the original organics law) vowing to ‘heighten enforcement’.

Get involved by letting Merrigan know just how much more organic enforcement needs to happen. You can reach her at:  Kathleen.Merrigan at ; ph  202-720-3631.

While you’re at it, why not contact Joe Smillie and the Quality Assurance folks, and let them know you’re just not down with ‘bending’ the organic rules. They can be reached at:  qai at ; ph 858.792.3531.

~Jennifer Heigl

4 replies on “The Side Dish: Why You Should Question Your Organics”
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  2. says: Christine K.

    And of course, why wouldn’t the big food companies WANT to get the rules bent so they can charge extra $$ for that organic label?? This is what prompts me to grow as much of my own as possible, shop at the local (nearly year round, thank goodness) farmer’s market and local Co-op so at least I know where the stuff is coming from. It’s the best that I can do for myself and my child(ren).

    PS – You’re awesome, Jen! I don’t know why I haven’t been here before but my productivity at work just went down the tubes!!

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