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How organic is "organic"?

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Wrapping your brain around what "organic" means these days is tricky. If a whole food — produce, grains, meat — says it's organic, you can expect that it's pretty much 100 percent organic. But any product in a package labeled "organic" by law has to be only 95 percent organic. And that's where the latest brouhaha is focused.

See, the USDA recently announced that it was going to approve 38 non-organic ingredients for use in organic products. OK, so those ingredients go toward that non-organic 5 percent. If you don't care whether a product is entirely organic — say, shampoo — then it's not such a big deal. But if the "organic" product is food, you might think it's a very big deal indeed.

On June 11, the New York Times wrote up the proposed changes in a tone of much concern, quoting an organic farmer's comments to the Agriculture Department protesting the changes: "More than 90 percent of the food/agricultural items on the proposed list of materials in this rule are items that can easily be grown organically."

[%image hops float=left width=350 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/pic4you" caption="How do you feel about having non-organic hops in your organic beer?"]

The farmer, Merrill A. Clark, added that allowing non-organic ingredients would be "totally unhealthy for the organic industry down the road" and would be "opening the organic rules to ridicule and unflattering public exposure."

Prior to the discussions about the proposed 38 ingredients — which include hops, food coloring, starches, sausage casings, and gelatin — the USDA had officially approved only five non-organic ingredients: corn starch, water-extracted gums, kelp, unbleached lecithin, and pectin. 

As Samuel Fromartz pointed out in a blog post on June 13, the USDA has actually been far more lax about ingredient approval in the past. "Non-organic agricultural ingredients had an express pass to get into an organic product," Fromartz, the author of the book Organic, Inc., wrote. "If the organic processor told his certifier that an organic agricultural ingredient was not available, then the certifier could issue a pass for the non-organic version to be used." 

Easy-peasy, right? You can't get the ingredient you need organically, so you just get an exemption and use the non-organic version. But by June 14, the Los Angeles Times had reported that organic-products manufacturers were in limbo, waiting for the USDA to issue its final ruling. 

Anheuser-Busch, for example, had taken flak in the media for wanting access to non-organic hops. Since the USDA hasn't finalized its rules yet, the Budweiser folks are now making all-organic beer by default.

If the non-organic hops get approved, that beer will almost certainly become 95 percent organic again, instead of 100 percent. And Fromartz isn't thrilled about this: "Why can't Anheuser-Busch and Wolaver's enlist more growers into the market, where organic hops go for three times the price of conventional? . . . If they don't push on the demand side, then the supply will never be there."

A June 13 post on the Ethicurean argued that manufacturers were naturally interested in buying as few organic ingredients as possible since organic ingredients typically cost more. Wrote poster DairyQueen: 

bq. In general, the 38 additions to the National List seem like easy, cheesy ways out for processed-food companies to continue to profit off the higher prices consumers are willing to pay for food with the label without themselves paying higher prices for certain ingredients, or having to work to increase their supply.

Fromartz agreed, casting one last vote for idealism:

bq. In an ideal world, organic farmers will come up with all the organic agricultural ingredients that processors need. My worry is that the non-organic ingredients will become the de facto ingredients and no one will step up to the plate to try and produce organic ones.

Can't argue with that. 

If you feel like sharing your opinion on the matter with the USDA, the Organic Consumers Association has an online letter you can send. Happy shopping!

hops, l