Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Buying "Organic" Or Are You?

A few weeks ago the Washington Post ran an article titled "Purity of Federal 'Organic' Label is Questioned." It discusses the major battle that is being waged by organic food advocates over the federal loopholes that allow companies to achieve a 'USDA Organic' seal of approval without assurances that 100% of the ingredients are non-synthetic or cultivated organically (in actuality the real proportion is only 95% organic ingredients - click here for an explanation of the tiers of 'organic' labels). A few examples:
  • Pre-grated organic cheeses -- wood starch
  • Organic beer - non-organic hops (how is it organic then? the water?)
  • Baby formula - synthetic fatty acids
So why did the federal government introduce these loopholes? Industry lobbying. The organic market is growing -- everyone wants to be 'in on it' even if they do not technically produce or sell organic products. So because Kraft and Dole (among others...) want to be able to put organic products in stores without the requisite time, energy, and skill they appeal to the Organic Standards Board to expand the list of allowable non-organic substances (...that 5%...). In 2002 that list had 77 items, now it has 245!

This is the reason why consumer education is so challenging and important. Industry is constantly trying to manipulate consumers by calling their products "100% whole grain," "fresh," and "natural". They play on consumer desire to eat healthier, but what results is little actual change and movement toward healthy because consumers are often being duped.

This is a major reason why small farms that sell to your local grocer -- not the big chains -- may not market their products as "organic" even though they are! Why go through the hassle of getting the organic label when the food giants are corrupting the name?

In my opinion, the addition of synthetic ingredients should disqualify products to be labelled as 'organic.' This is clearly not how the USDA defines it. And as for the quote by Barbara Robinson, the deputy USDA administrator for the organics program,
"We don't attempt to say how synthetic products can be produced... Manufacturers say the fatty acids [added to infant formula] are safe and provide health benefits to infants."
I would like to know how rigorous and effective are the health and safety checks conducted by manufacturers (??!!) -- I would say that is not a part of their training or expertise. These politicians can not rely on them for information! They need to look to an independent, expertly conducted evidence base of research. They must fund this and prioritize it for progress to be made and for this nonsense to end. 

We need people in Washington to stand up for small farmers and to not cave in to industry lobbyists. There needs to be a 'food constitution' and a revival of food culture in the United States that expects transparency and clarity with regards to what we are putting in our bodies each day and how that will affect our health, energy, and vitality down the road. 

Will Obama's increased funding for the Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program put an end to these charades? Or will it just expand the consumer abuse? 

I mean, really! If I'm paying more to buy 'organic' it better be exactly what I think it is...

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