When "Organic" isn’t Organic

When "Organic" isn’t Organic

Fill your cart with goodies that have been certified “organic,” and you might think you’re feeding your family wholesome food that’s been untainted by pesticides or chemical additives.

Think again, says Michael Potter, CEO of Eden Foods.

“Just because it says ‘organic’ on it doesn’t mean it is,” says the CEO of Eden Foods.

Potter and a die-hard group of believers in the organic movement are raising an outcry over what they describe as a persistent watering-down of organic standards over the past decade. He blames inadequate enforcement and a certification system that puts more focus on how a farmer’s paperwork is filled out than how his crops are being grown.

“The standards are lackluster at best,” he says. “It’s only become easier and cheaper to defraud the public with organics.”

Some products that meet the legal definition of the term might surprise consumers, says Charlotte Vallaeys, director of farm and food policy at the Cornucopia Institute.

“There’s a certain expectation that organic food is natural food: that synthetic ingredients that are developed in a lab and then produced in China—that those ingredients are not found in a food that’s labeled ‘organic,’” she says.

But under industry pressure, she says, the USDA’s National Organic Program has added more and more items to the list of chemical or synthetic ingredients that can legally be used in the production of foods that carry the “organic” label. One example she cites is the use of DHA omega-3 as an additive in organic infant formulas and milk. The nutrient is usually found in animal products, but some companies began using a vegetarian version, extracted from algae using chemical solvents—ingredients many consumers wouldn’t consider organic.

“They mix it in with a bunch of synthetic preservatives to get an algae oil which they add to foods, so the food manufacturer can say it’s high in DHA,” says Vallaeys.

Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, says his agency reviewed the issue and determined it had erred when it initially classified the synthetic DHA as an allowable “nutrient vitamin and mineral.” Since then, however, the National Organic Standards Board has recommended that it be included on the list of other permitted additives, a recommendation that is expected to come up for public debate in 2013.

He acknowledges that the list of synthetic ingredients permitted in organic food has grown longer but says that’s because regulators have gotten more specific about what’s allowed. Whereas before the agency included a few broad categories of substances that could be used, he says, now it lists the exact chemicals, making the list more restrictive.

“The reason why it’s gotten longer is because it’s gotten more defined,” he says.

The agency is also putting more resources into its enforcement branch and has stepped up inspections as part of the Obama administration’s mandate to tighten organic standards, including sending auditors to check operations in China in 2010, he adds. “A lot more attention has gone into enforcement and oversight,” he says.

The next step will be to require random testing for chemical and pesticide residues on organic products, under rules being developed by the USDA, says spokeswoman Soo Kim.

But to Eden Foods’ Potter, that’s still very far from enough. Before doing business with a supplier, he says, his company looks closely not just at its farming practices but at its motivations: “Are they just in it for the money or are they really motivated to produce organic food, because they care?”

In contrast, he calls the USDA’s certification process “a paperwork scheme.”

“If the paperwork is filled out properly, it’s organic. Now, what does filling out paperwork have to do with the vitality of the soil that grew the food? And who’s checking? Who’s confirming any of this? As often as not: nobody.”

What You Can Do

If You Have a Minute…

“Ask questions,” says Michael Potter of Eden Foods. Retailers, including supermarkets and restaurants, that care about the integrity of their products will welcome questions about what they’re selling. “You have a right to know what’s in your food,” he says. “Use it or lose it.”
If You Have an Hour…
Browse “scorecards” of organic products at, then support brands that uphold organic values. “Ultimately we vote with our decisions on the purchases we make,” Potter says. “If your dollars are going to someone who’s perpetrating a fraud, you’re empowering them to do it more.”
If You Have a Month…
Apply for the Cornucopia Institute’s internship program for a hands-on chance to advocate for small farms and lobby for changes in organic food policies. As a small, nonprofit watchdog organization, “we actually rely quite heavily on interns,” says Charlotte Vallaeys. For information, email [email protected].
If You Have $100…
Make a donation of any amount to the Cornucopia Institute and you automatically become a member. The organization points to its membership list as a marker of how many people care about organic policies when it appeals to the USDA for changes. “It gives us the moral authority to speak out on this issue,” says Vallaeys.

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