Not long ago, I heard from an organic farmer and grass-fed beef rancher in Viborg, South Dakota. He was concerned about the integrity of the organic label.
I’m sorry to confirm he has a point. For many people, just seeing the word “organic” on food products makes them feel confident they’re eating quality, pesticide-free food. But you can’t always count on it. Let me tell you what I found. . .
Turns out eating healthy is big business
Questions about the integrity of the organic label started in 2006 when USDA employees discovered synthetic additives in organic baby formula. The additives violated federal standards. Yet by 2009, those same additives were in 90 percent of organic baby formula. Suppliers claimed the additives boosted brainpower and vision.
According to a July 3, 2009 article from the Washington Post, the turnaround on additives was a result of lobbying efforts by formula makers who got a USDA program manager to bend the rules. Combine that with a growing list of non-organic ingredients “approved” to be in organically-certified food, and you get what we’ve got: a spike in the number of companies allowed to wear the coveted USDA organic seal.
Why the big push by lobbyists in the first place? Because organic food is big business these days. In the U.S. in 2011, sales of organic food and beverages passed the $31 billion mark. The global organic foods market is worth more than $60 billion.
There’s no question it’s a profitable industry. According to the Organic Trade Association…
- 78% of U.S. families now buy organic
- More than half of all parents have a high level of trust for organic products
- There are over 17,600 certified organic farms, ranches, and businesses
- 35% of organic farms are more profitable than average farms
- 4.6 million acres of farmland in the U.S. is devoted to organic agriculture
- 94% of organic operations in the U.S. will either maintain or increase employment this year
- The organic industry is creating jobs at four times the national average
- The organics industry in the U.S. grew by a record 9.5% in 2011
Those numbers are impressive when you consider how poor the rest of the economy is. This is a growth industry. It’s obvious why so many in the food business want a piece of it. But the rush to claim the “organic” label is leading to lower standards and outright fraud.
Here’s what you’re actually getting when you buy organic
According to the USDA site, if you’re looking for organic food all you have to do is locate the USDA organic seal, printed in brown, green, or black, on products in the grocery store or on the signs above them.
The website explains that if a vendor wants to legally claim something is “100 percent organic,” the product “must contain 100 percent organically produced ingredients, not counting added water and salt.”
If the maker wants to claim a product is simply “organic” (not “100 percent organic”), it can’t have added sulfites, has to have at least 95% organic ingredients, and may contain the following: 1) non-organically produced agricultural ingredients not commercially available in organic form, and/or 2) other substances allowed by 7 CFR 205.605 (more on that in a minute).
Multi-ingredient products can display the seal if at least 95 percent of the product is organic.
The same standards apply to foods labeled “made with organic ingredients,” except in that case, only 70 percent of the ingredients need to be organic. 30% of the food can be non-organic.
What’s the problem here? For starters, when most folks see the word “organic,” that’s what they think they’re getting. Few realize something may be only 95 percent or as low as 70 percent organic.
What’s more, few people realize nonorganic substances are allowed in foods with any kind of organic label. Below is a list of just some of the synthetic stuff permitted in our organic food according to the approved list from the USDA:
And this is just the list of “approved” synthetic ingredients. Nobody wants to think about how many illegal synthetic chemicals are being smuggled in under the organic label.
Most of the items on this list are harmless and some may even be good for you. The ones that raise my unscientific eyebrows are chlorine, ethylene, glycerides and glycerine, ammonium carbonate and ammonium bicarbonate, and some of the sodium compounds. And of course, I avoid wine containing sulfites.
The best organic food may not be labeled
Here’s something to complicate the issue even more: If a producer is completely organic, it doesn’t mean he or she will try to qualify for the USDA Organic label. A great many people don’t want to hassle with the process of getting certified, especially if their farming operation is small.
So someone selling food at a farmer’s market, or even in a small-town grocery store, might really be offering good organic food. They just do it without the government label.
I’ve spoken with farmers in my area who say they don’t go for the official certification because of the expense and bother. At least in a farmer’s market you can look people in the eye and decide if you trust them when they say their foods were grown without chemicals, antibiotics and hormones.
In farmer’s markets it’s become a popular ploy to label produce “low spray.” This means little, if anything. I suspect it’s an effort by nonorganic farmers to profit from the demand for organic foods. Some fruits and vegetables — peaches for example — are very hard to grow without sprays.
In case you’re curious, here’s what farmers and food producers have to do to get organic certification:
- Prove no human sewage sludge fertilizer was used to grow plants or feed animals
- Prove no synthetic chemicals were used, including genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, and pesticides
- Prove the farmland used has been free of synthetic chemicals for three or more years
- Keep detailed production and sales records
- Keep organic products away from non-certified products
- Tolerate occasional on-site inspections
Safeguarding the organic label — is it even possible?
I’m not a fan of government regulation and government-approved labeling as the way to ensure the integrity of the food I’m eating. Control of regulatory agencies invariably gets captured by the people supposedly being regulated, who then make sure the whole thing is run in their interests, not those of the consumer.
If you don’t believe me, just consider the FDA and the drug industry. What makes you think the Department of Agriculture is different? Verily, I say unto you: It isn’t.
A far better method is to buy from people and companies you trust. Those people will, I hope, self-regulate by private industry associations that set high standards for membership. By all means, let organic growers form a platinum club, a gold club and a silver club — private clubs all — and let them insist the members meet their standards.
As for the USDA’s regulatory program, there’s some support from government representatives who’d like to save the organic label from losing all meaning. Just last month, California congresswoman Lois Capps joined New York congressman Richard Hanna in presenting the Organic Standards Protection Act to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill’s goal is to give the Department of Agriculture the power to “protect the integrity of certified organic products,” as Capps puts it.
She’s calling attention to the fact that companies now label and sell foods with the organic label even though the foods contain or have been treated with things prohibited under organic certification. Capps says this bill, if passed, would give authorities the regulatory power to put an end to this.
What to expect down the road in organics
What’s particularly interesting (and disturbing) is that shortly after the government relaxed the standards, so many new companies jumped in that the organic market became a multibillion-dollar business. Now we often pay twice as much for food that isn’t as natural as we may think. By that, I mean the food isn’t necessarily chemical and pesticide-free and produced in a way that’s safe for the environment.
My bet is we’ll see more rules cropping up for growers and producers to meet “national standards” instead of having clear-cut guidelines that say something either is organic or it isn’t.
If the lax standards continue, they’ll undermine everything the true organic farmers — like my friend in South Dakota — are trying to do.
View the government’s organic label as one step in your vetting process. It’s not worthless, but it’s not the last word, either. If food officially labeled organic has 60 or 70 percent fewer chemicals than regular food, it’s a huge improvement. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Meanwhile, if you’re worried about cell phones contributing to brain cancer, our last issue offered a possible solution. If you missed it, click here and take a look now.
“2012 Press Release.” Organic Trade Association
7 C.F.R. § 205.605 Nonagricultural (nonorganic) substances allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as “organic” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s)).” Justia US Law.com,
“Bill puts teeth in organic labels.” By Bob Cuddy. SanLuisObispo.com: The Tribune.
“Certified Organic Label Guide.” Organic Education, Organic.org.
“Has the ‘Organic’ Label Become the Biggest Greenwashing Campaign in the US?” by Brian Merchant. Treehugger, a Discovery Company.
“Industry Statistics and Projects Growth.” Organic Trade Association.
“Integrity of Federal ‘Organic’ Label Questioned.” By Kimberly Kindy and Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post.
“Labeling Packaged Products under the National Organic Standards.” USDA.gov site.
“Organic Certification.” Wikipedia.
“Organic. Consumer Drive. Farmer Powered.” Organic Trade Association.