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Tasty Bites 9.20.05
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Two Sides of the Coin

As mentioned in last week's Tasty Bites, there is a big decision being made in Congress regarding the USDA organic standards. Very soon, as in...well...maybe today, but definitely THIS WEEK.

The big ruckus was caused following the ruling from little ol' Arthur Harvey, the solo organic berry farmer, who singlehandedly sued the USDA to tighten up their standards, and won! (You can read more in our 8/24/05 Tasty Bites.)

Various groups, including the Organic Trade Association, now propose that Congress restore the standards because of incomplete information presented in the Harvey case.

We now have the Organic Trade Association pushing to restore and clarify the standards from before, and we have the Organic Consumers Association pushing to maintain the new rules resulting from Harvey's case. Hmmm. Quite a conundrum.

Om Organics strives for Ommm-like communication, so here are both sides of the coin. Read BOTH, and then you decide...

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) wants to restore the old standards because:

  • The new rules are more strict about which ingredients are allowed in products labeled "organic".

    Common ingredients like baking powder, pectin, ascorbic acid, vitamins and minerals are no longer allowed in "USDA Organic" products. Prohibiting these as organic will force food companies to either stop using them, or label their products with the watered-down "made with organic ingredients". So, what's the big deal?

    Take a pastry company. Their organic pastries are made with all natural, organic ingredients except for baking powder and pectin. With the new rules, they'd have to call their pastries "made with organic ingredients". So, the fear is that once they lose the full-on "organic" label, they'll start cutting costs by switching to non-organic other ingredients, since they'll still be using enough organics to fall in the "made with organic ingredients" range.

    So, we as consumers will theoretically end up with crappier-quality organic foods. (More about how much organic = USDA organic.)

    Take organic soy milk, tofu, sugar, apple juice, soda pop, rice, and grains stored in silos. All these products are produced or packaged using "benign" non-organic additions like emulsifiers, CO2, or anti-bacterial ingredients to allow shelf-life. Under the new standards, none of these food companies will be able to use the "organic" label; they'll have to use the "made with organic ingredients" label. The OTA believes this will not only hurt the individual businesses that produce these products, but also the organic food movement as a whole, since consumers will no longer have full "organic" options to buy.

  • The new rules require organic dairy farms to use 100% organic feed when transitioning to organic, which is more costly and may dissuade farmers to go for it.

    The old rules allow new organic dairy farms a little financial leeway in requiring only 80% organic feed in the last transitional year before becoming "organic".

  • It took a long time to create the original standards in the first place, and they're based on input from all sectors of the industry (enviro groups, farmers, food companies, consumers, and activists).

    Basically, we should stick to what the whole community took 12 years to draft and accept. The OTA wants Congress to clarify ambiguities in the existing standards before the Harvey case, not become more lenient in the rules. (Check out the "benign synthetics" that they propose be allowed.)

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) wants to retain the new standards because:

  • "USDA Organic" foods should be truly organic...period.

    If food companies use non-organic ingredients, we need to maintain the integrity of the label, and they shouldn't be able to call their products "organic". The "made with organic ingredients" label was created for these cases. Keep it real yo.

    Some of the proposed allowable synthetics seem okay, but are they all okay? For example, chlorine is one of the allowable chemicals, so packaged salads can survive transportation. When you eat an organic salad, would you expect there to be traces of chlorine?

  • Dairy farmers transitioning to organic should be required to use 100% organic feed...period.

    This is the case with produce farmers. Basically, before produce farms can be certified as organic, they have to be using 100% organic methods for 3 years, so the soil can adjust and rid itself of toxins. Why should it be different with dairy?

  • Organic standards should be reviewed and revised by the organic community and the National Organic Standards Board, not by Congress.

    The organic community and Standards Board were the ones to write the rules in the first place, so why should Congress intervene. In the past, organic standards issues have been addressed in a democratic, free-speechy kind of way. The complaint and fear this time is that lobbyists have been "hasty and secretive", where the community is out of the loop and not being heard.

Okay, that's pretty much the jist. Do you agree or disagree? Are we totally off-base? Let us know! (Thanks to those who submitted info for this newsletter!)

Support the Organic Trade Association
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USDA National Organic Program home page.
More about the USDA's history with organics.
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More about organics in general.

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2005 Om Organics 9.20.05-40a