U.S. Foods Labeled Organic May Still Contain Synthetics

WASHINGTON, DC, October 28, 2005 (ENS) - Congressional negotiators have agreed to permit certain non-natural, synthetic materials to continue to be used in processing organic foods, an issue that has split the organic foods industry in two.

The provision to amend the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was added to the Fiscal Year 2006 spending budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by Senate and House negotiators on Wednesday night.

The new legislative language was made necessary by a court decision in June that barred products processed with synthetic ingredients from using the USDA's 100 percent organic label.

Language to allow the synthetic substances, such as hydrogen peroxide to clean containers that will hold organic foods, was written by the Organic Trade Association and food processors.

The Organic Trade Association says it had "submitted language to Congress to amend OFPA to allow the continued use of a limited list of stringently reviewed synthetic materials in post-harvest handling," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the association.

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In 2002, the USDA's organic label was first applied to foods that meet standards established under the Organic Foods Production Act.
But Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, called the move a "stealth attack" by industry on the organic food standards developed through 10 years of public hearings.

"Congress voted last night to weaken the national organic standards that consumers count on to preserve the integrity of the organic label," he said.

"The process was profoundly undemocratic and the end result is a serious setback for the multi-billion dollar alternative food and farming system that the organic community has so painstakingly built up over the past 35 years," Cummins said.

"The rider will take away the traditional role of the organic community and the National Organic Standards Board in monitoring and controling organic standards. Industry's stealth attack has unnecessarily damaged the standards that helped organic foods become the fastest growing sector in the food industry," said Cummins.

As passed, the amendment sponsored by the Organic Trade Association allows synthetic food additives and processing aids, including over 500 food contact substances, to be used in organic foods without public review, Cummins warns.

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Organic flaxseed meal. Organic foods are gaining in popularity year by year. (Photo courtesy Amazon.com)
Cummins also objects to "loopholes under which non-organic ingredients could be substituted for organic ingredients without any notification of the public based on 'emergency decrees.'"

The issue was raised by a court decision in June in favor of an organic farmer who argued that synthetic ingredients should not be permitted under the USDA's 100 percent organic label.

In 2002, blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey of Hartford, Maine sued then Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. He asked the court to eliminate provisions of the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances that “allow synthetics to be added during processing of organic food.”

The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances is the list of exceptions to the general requirement that natural materials are allowed and synthetic materials are prohibited in the processing of organic food. It is a list of prohibited natural materials, such as arsenic, and allowed synthetics, such as baking soda.

Harvey argued that there are inconsistencies between the Organic Foods Production Act, passed as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, and the National Organic Program standards, implemented in October 2002.

While denying several of Harvey's pleas, U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk ruled in his favor on the synthetic ingredients issue, but Secretary Veneman appealed.

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Organic spelt flour is the choice of some people with wheat allergies. (Photo courtesy Amazon.com)
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit based in Boston ruled in Harvey's favor on the synthetic ingredients issue.

In June, the U.S. District Court in Portland, Maine ordered the USDA to create new organic rules within 12 months to replace invalidated rules which currently allow synthetic ingredients in manufacturing organic-labeled foods.

The amendment to the Organic Foods Production Act agreed by lawmakers circumvents that ruling.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), representing North American businesses that grow and market organic foods, said the new legislative language was needed to allow organic food processors to continue to make a living.

But in a September 23 statement, Harvey said, the court ruling "did not affect commercial availability, it dealt only with the need for NOSB [National Organic Standards Board] review of the National List."

Harvey accuses the OTA of giving "false information" to its members in a September 19 phone campaign to drum up support for revision of the law. Harvey objects to the OTA's statement that the court ruling "effectively blocked the common use of harmless substances like baking soda, pectin, ascorbic acid, vitamins and minerals, etc."

"The fact is," Harvey says, "these remain on the National List and were not affected by my lawsuit, except (possibly) ascorbic acid. Pectin was removed only in its synthetic form, and remains in its natural form."

The OTA's DiMatteo defended her association's position. "If Congress had not acted, many of the organic products consumers know and love would have disappeared. That’s not good for consumers or the organic farmers and organic companies that are working hard every day to continue to grow this industry."

DiMatteo said decisionmaking authority of the National Organic Standards Board "remains in place."

But the Organic Consumers Association says the amendment was opposed by consumer, retail and growers groups, as well as public health and environmental groups, including National Cooperative Grocers Association, National Organic Coalition and Rural Advancement Foundation International ­ USA, Beyond Pesticides, National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, Organic Consumers Association, and Consumers Union.

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Organic farmer Phil Foster (left) and a friend inspect leaves of red chard on Foster's organic farm in San Juan Bautista, California. (Photo by Scott Bauer courtesy USDA)
"Consumers sent more than 300,000 letters to Congress imploring members to stand up against industry's efforts to weaken the organic standards," said Cummins.

The current labeling requirements of the USDA National Organic Standard includes three levels - a 100 percent organic category for fresh and processed products, the organic category 95 percent or more organic ingredients, and the made with organic category, which contains 70 percent or more organic ingredients.

If the new legislative language had not circumvented the court's ruling, a company producing a food now labeled 100 percent organic would have had to change its label if its containers were cleaned with hydrogen peroxide, the OTA said.

Harvey explains that he began his lawsuit "because USDA was moving steadily away from organic integrity as envisioned by people who got Congress to approve OFPA in 1990."

"At present," he said in September, "organic eggs are dipped in bleach before packaging. Whole chickens are being sealed in plastic bags containing up to 10 percent by weight of water containing up to 200 ppm of chlorine. These same chickens have never been outdoors or exposed to direct sunlight."

"As a consumer," he said, "I would not have suspected any of these facts which I learned as an inspector. USDA may not even know about some of them, and I cannot report specifics because of confidentiality. At a certain point, I have to choose between denouncing organic food as a fraud, or try to change the regulation. I chose the latter."

To view the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances log on to: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/NationalList/FinalRule.html

The Organic Trade Association is online at: http://www.ota.com/index.html

The Organic Consumers Association is at: http://www.organicconsumers.org