Three years ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture employees determined that synthetic additives in organic baby formula violated federal standards and should be banned from a product carrying the federal organic label. Today the same additives, purported to boost brainpower and vision, can be found in 90 percent of organic baby formula.
The government's turnaround, from prohibition to permission, came after a USDA program manager was lobbied by the formula makers and overruled her staff. That decision and others by a handful of USDA employees, along with an advisory board's approval of a growing list of non-organic ingredients, have helped numerous companies win a coveted green-and-white "USDA Organic" seal on an array of products.
Grated organic cheese, for example, contains wood starch to prevent clumping. Organic beer can be made from non-organic hops. Organic mock duck contains a synthetic ingredient that gives it an authentic, stringy texture.
Relaxation of the federal standards, and an explosion of consumer demand, have helped push the organics market into a $23 billion-a-year business, the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Half of the country's adults say they buy organic food often or sometimes, according to a survey last year by the Harvard School of Public Health.
But the USDA program's shortcomings mean that consumers, who at times must pay twice as much for organic products, are not always getting what they expect: foods without pesticides and other chemicals, produced in a way that is gentle to the environment.
The market's expansion is fueling tension over whether the federal program should be governed by a strict interpretation of "organic" or broadened to include more products by allowing trace elements of non-organic substances. The argument is not over whether the non-organics pose a health threat, but whether they weaken the integrity of the federal organic label.
Congress originally passed legislation regulating organic food, and providing standards for what could and could not be labelled organic, in 2002. As the market for organic food has grown, corporate food producers have bought up smaller organic food producers and farms, and lobbied the USDA to broaden exceptions for what and may not be included in food labeled as organic:
Under the original organics law, 5 percent 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. Companies must appeal to the board every five years to keep a substance on the list, explaining why an organic alternative has not been found. The goal was to shrink the list over time, but only one item has been removed so far.
The original law's mandate for annual pesticide testing was also never implemented -- the agency left that optional.
From the beginning, farmers and consumer advocates were concerned about safeguarding the organic label. In 2003, Arthur Harvey, who grows organic blueberries in Maine, successfully sued the USDA, arguing that the fledgling National Organic Program had violated federal law by allowing synthetic additives.
"The big boys like Kraft realized they could really cash in by filling the shelves with products with the organics seal," Harvey said. "But they were sort of inhibited by the original law that said no synthetic ingredients."
His victory was short-lived. 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, creating conditions for a flood of processed organic foods.
No pesticide testing, a gross expansion of the list of synthetic substances that organic food can contain...and a certification process that is overseen by private firms with attitudes like this:
Joe Smillie, a 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."
This is the guy whose firm is charged with ensuring that food producers meet the USDA's standards for organic food. Though he addresses concerns with a measure of sarcasm, it's clear that the issue is not the world that the food is being raised in, but what ingredients food producers would like to put in or use to produce the food that will make it brighter, tastier, or last longer on the shelves.
It's clear what'a happened here. An already weak law that is enforced haphazardly and by people with conflicted interests, is being steadily undermined by corporate food producers who want to get the prized organic label on their food (and increase it's marketability to consumers looking for more environmentally-friendly food) while making only minor changes to the way in which they've been producing food for decades, and thus avoid the extra expense of making food organic, but not the extra profit they can get from charging up to twice as much for food that consumers think is definitively organic. Now of course people can skip the local grocery store to shop at Whole Foods, whose food is more reliably organic. Or they can do the independent research necessary to find smaller brands whose product is actually organic (they're out there...though they mostly sell their food at places like Whole Foods.) But the USDA "organic" label was intended to give average consumers the ability to buy legitimately organic food without having to do a ton of research, or shop in specialty grocery or natural food stores. At this point, it is far from meeting that goal.