Saturday, August 8

The 5 Percent Allowance: A License to Defraud?

Organic = good, right? The U.S. Department of Agriculture's "certified organic" program allows up to 5 percent of a certified product to consist of non-organic ingredients. In the scheme of things, this should still be better than industrial farming food-like substances, but wait, there's more. According to Jim Hightower:

With the phenomenal growth in consumer demand for organic products, such giants as Kraft and Dean Foods have rushed to capture this multibillion-dollar market, except they don't want to play by the rules. Big Food found its enabler in [Barbara] Robinson, who was chosen to administer the organic program during the George W. Bush years.

Consulting regularly with the corporate powers, Robinson has brought synthetic after synthetic under the organic label. At the start of the certification program, 77 non-organic ingredients were on the allowable list, which was supposed to shrink as time passed. Today 245 ingredients are listed.

Likewise, the program was supposed to set uniform standards for how organic foods are produced. Yet 65 of the standards recommended by the board since 2002 simply have been ignored by the administrator. For example, the board proposed specific rules to ensure that organic dairy farmers provide "access to pasture" for their cows, but Robinson's team has refused to implement the proposal. Thus, a giant milk purveyor such as Dean Foods (Horizon dairy products) is allowed to sell "organic" milk from cows that are confined in factory conditions rather than allowed to graze in open pastures. By failing to set rules that apply to everyone, the USDA is permitting private, for-profit organic certification firms to create their own standards, which means corporate interests can shop around for the most lenient certifiers.

What is interesting to me is the way the USDA, under Robinson, has defined "organic" food. According to the USDA:

• Organic is a production claim
Organic is about how food is produced and handled.

• Organic is not a content claim
It does not represent that a product is “free” of something

• Organic is not a food safety claim
Organic is not a judgment about the quality and safety of any product

Organic does not mean a product is superior, safer, or more healthy than conventionally produced food

Many people choose organic products because of what they perceive to not be in them, e.g., chemicals growth hormones, what have you. But, by the USDA's own definition, they do not share this view, nor, apparently do they enforce it.

Hightower suggests calling the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's office at 202-720-3631. Tell Sec. Vilsack what you think organic means and suggesting that Rayne Pegg, the new administrator that he appointed, to do a better job, with better rules in place to make sure we get what we think we are paying for. In honor of National Farmer's Market Week, do it.

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