Oct. 5, 2005 – A battle over the rules for including synthetic ingredients in organic foods has prompted consumer advocates to step up their campaign against a move they say threatens to degrade organic food standards.
At issue is a rider sponsored by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and attached to the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Bill that would continue to legalize the inclusion of dozens of synthetic ingredients in foods bearing the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) "organic" label. The OTA represents a variety of organic producers, but is increasingly accused of promoting the interests of larger corporations such as Kraft, Dean Foods and Dole, which have all acquired market share in the fast-growing organic-foods sector.
The Appropriations Bill unanimously passed the Senate on September 22, but as a compromise, lawmakers agreed to postpone their decision on the OTA rider.
"What this does is it takes away the traditional control of the organic community over organic standards and centralizes control in the hands of the politically-appointed Secretary of Agriculture," explained Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, a Minnesota-based industry watchdog. "This rider shows they donâ€™t have any more respect to consult with the traditional organic community."
The final rule governing allowable synthetic ingredients was established in 2000 after years of debate, which at one point included an attempt by the USDA to allow irradiation, genetically modified organisms and sewage sludge in organic production. Adopted in 2002, the rule has permitted foods labeled "organic" -- meaning 95 percent of the final product must be organic -- to include up to 38 synthetic ingredients without mention on the productâ€™s label. These include substances such as ethylene, used to ripen bananas, and the synthetic lye that gives pretzels made by Neumanâ€™s Own Organics their golden sheen.
Language in the rider would loosen restrictions on the use of non-organic ingredients in cases where organic ingredients are deemed too costly.
But this summer a 73-year-old organic blueberry farmer from Maine named Arthur Harvey won a court appeal against the USDAâ€™s standards, arguing that federal regulations guiding organic food standards were less stringent than the original legislation had intended. The decision, among other things, places greater limits on the number of synthetic ingredients allowed in foods with the USDA "organic" label.
Small organic producers applauded the outcome. They argued that big corporations were behind efforts to water down industry standards. By adhering to the original guidelines, they said, organic producers would be forced to be more diligent in upholding standards, thus retaining consumer confidence in organic foods.
But the current rider, say opponents, would scale back the Harvey ruling, effectively re-imposing the state of affairs that previously existed. They say it would also make it easier for the USDA to permit up to 500 additional synthetic ingredients without rigorous review from the National Organics Standards Board, which regulates organic food production.
By caving in to corporate pressure to approve hundreds of new synthetics, critics worry there wonâ€™t be adequate safeguards put in place.
Moreover, language in the rider would loosen restrictions on the use of non-organic ingredients in cases where organic ingredients are deemed too costly and allow farmers to feed dairy cows with more non-organic feed and still apply the organic label to their milk and cheese products, according to the Organic Consumers Association.
The Organic Trade Association disputes their criticsâ€™ interpretation of the congressional rider and says that for decades a variety of synthetics have been safely used in small quantities during food production. The OTA points out that many permitted synthetic ingredients are just food-handling substances used, for example, to clean equipment, and are never directly added to the final product. Without the inclusion of benign synthetics, they say, rising production costs would make organic products less affordable.
"Organics are a market-driven success story," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of OTA, in an interview with The NewStandard. "The government doesnâ€™t subsidize organics so that theyâ€™re competitive in price. In order to remain a success there needs to be products to buy â€“ and they need to be affordable to a certain degree."
DiMatteo believes that limiting allowable synthetics would force many products into the less desirable "made with" label designating foods composed of at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
DiMatteo said critics of the rider are "shooting themselves in the foot," suggesting their high standards will shut them out of their own market.
"Once [these synthetic ingredients] are not allowed for use in the organic category, itâ€™s going to take a lot of research and development money to find substitutes. Only the big companies will be able to invest. If part of this drive is to fight against big companies," she concluded, "it may backfire."
But a number of smaller organic companies see it differently.
"Itâ€™s not the small companies that are pushing for this [rider], rather itâ€™s the large, publicly traded companies that have become subsidiaries of Kraft, Smuckers and other big corporations," said Tonya Martin, a spokesperson for Eden Foods, an independent organic food company that makes EdenSoy milk and other products. "Farmers have worked so hard to grow an authentically organic product. For them to turn their crops over to a company thatâ€™s going to adulterate their food is a violation of trust."
So whatâ€™s wrong with a dab of synthetic lye coated on the outside of an otherwise entirely organic pretzel? Most of the synthetic ingredients that would be allowed are considered benign â€“ at least for now. But by caving in to corporate pressure to approve hundreds of new synthetics, critics worry there wonâ€™t be adequate safeguards put in place.
"None of these approved substances are scary," Cummins told TNS, "but if you change the process of rigorous review to a decision made by an appointed USDA bureaucrat, you open the door wide for massive erosion of standards."
The Organic Consumers Association fears that although the Senate reached a compromise to gather more information and wait on a vote for the proposed rule changes, lawmakers may nevertheless slip language into the bill as it is being discussed in the joint House-Senate Conference Committee. Consumer groups say opponents have sent over 70,000 letters to members of Congress and have encouraged countless other phone calls. Cummins says they face an uphill battle, but that he remains hopeful.
"The only thing thatâ€™s going to stop this is a massive outpouring by the grassroots, and based on what weâ€™ve seen this week, itâ€™s already started happening."