Big Organic Goes Synthetic

F. Timothy Martin Oct 4, 2005

This summer a 73-year-old organic blueberry farmer from Maine won a court appeal against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Arthur Harvey’s victory shook the world of organic food. Harvey had asserted that federal regulations guiding organic food standards were less stringent than the original legislation intended.

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 food.

David had slain Goliath, or so it had appeared.

But a rider attached to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations bill passed by the Senate on Sept 22, threatens to undermine the Harvey ruling. According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a Minnesota-based industry watchdog group, the rider would allow more synthetic ingredients in foods labeled “organic” by the Department of Agriculture.

A rider would also loosen restrictions on the use of non-organic ingredients in cases where organic ingredients are deemed too costly and would allow farmers to feed dairy cows with more non-organic feed, the OCA declared.

“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,” said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the OCA. “This rider shows they don’t have any more respect to consult with the traditional organic community.”

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which established the current national standards for regulating organic foods, including specifications for the use of non-organic ingredients in “organic” foods.

Opponents say the rider would allow the addition of more than 500 synthetic ingredients. Current regulations allow only 38.

One example of the rider’s impact is illustrated by Newman’s Own Organics’ use of synthetic lye, used to make their pretzels appear shiny. Harvey’s lawsuit likely would have forced the company to refrain from using the lye. The proposed rider would permit it.

So what’s wrong with a dab of synthetic lye coated on the outside of an otherwise entirely organic pretzel? In truth, most of the synthetic ingredients that would be allowed are considered benign – at least for now. But by caving in to corporate pressure to approve hundreds of new synthetics, critics worry there won’t be adequate safeguards put in place.

“None of these approved substances are scary, but if you change the process of rigorous review to a decision made by an appointed Agriculture Department official, you open the door wide for massive erosion of standards,” said Cummins.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents both big and small organic producers, disputes the OCA’s interpretation of the Congressional rider and says that for decades a variety of synthetics have been safely used in small quantities during food production. But with big corporations such as Kraft, Archer Daniels Midland and Dean Foods among its 1,500 members, small organic producers are expressing concern about their motivations.

The rider now enters a House-Senate conference committee where it can be passed as soon as next week. Opponents of the rider say they have sent over 70,000 letters to members of Congress and have encouraged countless phone calls. But with key allies in Congress – new House majority leader Roy Blunt’s wife works for Kraft – big food corporations seem poised to win their agenda. Still, Cummins remains hopeful.

“The only thing that’s going to stop this is a massive outpouring by the grassroots, and based on what we’ve seen this week, it’s already started to happen.”

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