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ORGANIC ... OR NOT

By Mary Beth Schweigert | Lancaster Online

These foods are not always what consumers think they are. Some are not chemical or pesticide free. Health benefits are questionable. Only certain thing? They cost more.

Heather Fenimore is convinced organic food is the best choice for her family.

Fenimore, a Manheim Township social-services worker, first dabbled in organics more than 20 years ago, as a college student.

Motherhood intensified her desire to protect the environment and her new family's health. Organic produce, milk and eggs became staples on her shopping list.

So Fenimore was appalled when she saw the list of chemicals, pesticides and other synthetic materials — the very substances she's trying to avoid — that are completely legal in organic-food production.

"As informed as I thought I was, I was shocked by the clearly toxic chemicals in so-called 'organic' food," Fenimore said.

"I can't pronounce them."

Most organic consumers expect what they buy to be healthful, safe, and free of pesticides and chemicals, according to numerous studies by consumer groups, academics and marketing firms. Many assume organic food is grown by small farmers — ideally, even locally — using environmentally friendly methods and humanely treated animals.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans say they buy at least some organic products, often motivated by a desire to stay healthy, feed their families better food or prevent serious illness, such as cancer, according to the Organic Trade Association.

That concern for health has fueled an industry that's booming despite the recession. U.S. organic food sales have increased 500 percent since 1998 and now approach $23 billion annually, association reports show.

"I think there's an expectation [consumers are] getting something better," said Ned MacArthur, president of Avondale-based Natural Dairy Products Corp., which bottles Natural By Nature organic milk.

Such expectations come at a premium: Organic milk, for example, can cost more than twice as much as its conventional equivalent.

But sometimes consumers' perceptions of organic food don't jibe with reality.

"[Consumers] think 'organic' means not using any pesticides or chemicals," said Kerry H. Richards, director of Penn State University's Pest Management Information Center.

"Indeed, that's not really the truth."

In fact, current national standards allow dozens of pesticides, chemicals and other synthetic materials in organic food production.

And to safeguard against the possibility of prohibited substances ending up in organic food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture assigns only 16 staffers to its National Organic Program, which operates on a budget of $3.87 million — roughly equivalent to annual spending of the Fulton Theatre.

To help enforce national regulations and uncover violations, the organic program depends on a network of certifiers, whose inspectors are paid by farmers and typically visit organic operations once a year, on a prearranged basis.

Legally, only foods grown, raised, processed and handled according to federal standards may carry the USDA organic seal and be called "organic."

Some groups — among them, the Organic Consumers Association and National Organic Coalition — say the organic program's lack of funding and staff has led to a failure to properly enforce standards, eroding the USDA seal's integrity, as well as the public trust.

Some organic consumers, like Fenimore, say they'd rather buy directly from local farmers than rely on government to police the industry.

"When there's a personal relationship, there's an element of trust," she said. "Anytime there's a government ... approach to something as personal as food, that concerns me."

Even if aggressive oversight and enforcement did exist, the USDA offers no guarantee that organic food is superior, safer or more nutritious.

By the government's own definition, "organic" is simply a promotional term.

"Organic used to be more of a philosophy," said Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Sustainable Agriculture Association. "Now it's very much a marketing tool."

Critics like the Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group, accuse large corporations of using the word "organic" to sell products that are not true to the original organic philosophy of promoting health, environmental stewardship and small, local farmers.

Meanwhile, chemicals with unwieldy names — and purposes most consumers could only guess — aid the production of something that once seemed unfathomable: organic junk food.

"The biggest problem right now is the disconnect in what was the original vision when the organic movement started, and what it has morphed into now that we have an organic 'industry,' " said Mark A. Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute.

"The sad part is ... if the USDA was doing its job, we could buy any organic product and feel good about it."

The reality of organics

'Organic' does not mean free of chemicals or synthetic ingredients.
A recent national survey by the Organic Trade Association and Kiwi magazine found that most parents buy organic food to avoid processing, artificial ingredients, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics.

In fact, foods stamped with the USDA seal may contain up to 5 percent ingredients that are not organic.

Generally, all natural methods and substances are allowed in organic production. Synthetic methods and substances are not.

But the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances is essentially a 16-page roster of exemptions, including food additives, processing aids, cleaners, animal medications and pest controls.

In 2002, when national organic regulations first took effect, there were 77 exemptions. Since then, the list has ballooned to 245.

Some advocacy groups, including Consumers Union and the Organic Consumers Association, blame pressure from major corporations for the growing number of exemptions and what they see as a weakening of organic standards.

Seven of the top 10 North American food processors have acquired organic food companies, said Phil Howard, a Michigan State University assistant professor who studies the industry.

General Mills, for example, owns organic brands Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen. Kellogg owns Bear Naked, Kashi and Morningstar Farms.

"We know [big companies] are lobbying for changes in organic standards," Columbia organics consumer Jodi Swartz-Rankin said. "It would be naive of us to think they aren't."

The current list of exemptions includes copper sulfate and tetracycline. Copper sulfate is an algaecide toxic to fish and potentially dangerous if it enters public water systems, according to its Material Safety Data Sheet. Tetracycline, used to control fire blight on fruit trees, is toxic to the human liver and reproductive organs, its data sheet says.

Since these synthetic materials, including pest controls such as boric acid and cleaners such as bleach, are not ingredients, they do not appear on food labels.

Organic producers must petition the National Organic Standards Board to add a substance to the list.

The material must be unavailable in organic form, or not in quantities large enough for production. The limited supply of organic hops, for example, means conventional hops are allowed in the manufacture of organic beer.

Before voting on a material, the standards board evaluates any potential risks to people, animals or the environment. Some materials are approved but restricted in use, like phosphoric acid, allowed only to clean surfaces or equipment.

Fenimore said she thinks many organic consumers have no idea the national list exists.

"Shame on us, the consumer, for tolerating these kinds of practices." she said. "Holy cow, [the list] is a million pages long."

While the national list's length might alarm some consumers, current and former board members said some synthetics are necessary to produce organic food.

Conventional medications relieve pain and suffering in organic animals. Disinfectants promote sanitary food production.

Mark Bradley, director of the organic program's accreditation and international activities division, said materials that make the list are carefully reviewed and largely benign.

"They are generally such substances as leavening agents, baking soda or processing aids for which there are no organic agricultural substitutes," he said via e-mail.

Nancy Ostiguy, a Penn State University associate professor of entomology and former standards board member, said consumers' increasing interest in organic processed foods, such as potato chips and cookies, presents an interesting Catch-22. Chemicals may be required to prepare those foods for consumption, she says.

"There are things that are on the [national] list that you sort of shudder at," said Ostiguy, who has a doctorate in environmental toxicology. "It's mostly with processing that some of the items look a little scary."

'Organic' doesn't mean pesticide-free.
Many organic consumers believe their food is grown without pesticides, or materials that kill insects or weeds.

But certain pesticides, often called "botanical" or "natural," actually are allowed on organic farms.

"The majority of [organic] lettuce mix you buy in the store has been sprayed at least once, if not twice," Lititz farmer Andrew Buckwalter said. "They're just using certified organic pesticides."

Pesticides approved for use on organic farms contain chemicals found in nature, while conventional pesticides are manufactured from synthetically derived chemicals, Penn State's Richards said.

The current list of pest, weed and disease controls approved for use on organic farms runs more than eight pages. Permitted controls range from garlic and soap to copper and sulfur.

Dave Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said most pesticides approved for organic use are pest-specific and have low toxicity.

"Very few pose any concern about chronic or long-term effects," he said in an e-mail.

But Richards, the Penn State expert, said natural pesticides are not necessarily safer for people, animals or the environment. Neem oil, extracted from the evergreen's fruits and seeds, kills beneficial bees. PyGanic, a commercial brand of pyrethrum — a botanical extract from chrysanthemum-like flowers — is toxic to fish.

Irresponsible handling of any pesticide can cause problems, Richards said.

"Does [organic] mean it's better or worse?" she said. "It all boils down to how you use it."

Some organic farmers apply pesticides only as a last resort. Buckwalter, who uses organic techniques but isn't certified organic, applied an organic-approved spray for the first time earlier this year, when his blighted tomato crop left him little choice.

Natural pesticides are a better choice than conventional, Buckwalter said, but not entirely harmless.

"Those [organic] chemicals, if not used properly, can do just as much damage as conventional," he said. "Farmers and consumers must know what is truly being applied to their foods. In fact, they should demand it."

'Organic' doesn't mean small.
Organic-milk consumers might picture contented cows munching grass under the watchful gaze of a small family farmer.

But that feel-good image isn't always reality.

Organic law does not dictate farm size. In fact, herds numbering in the thousands produce milk for top organic suppliers.

Some operations exploit loopholes in current national standards, which address animals' access to pasture — a central tenet to the original organic philosophy — only vaguely, said Kastel, director of Cornucopia's Organic Integrity Project.

Some of the country's top organic milk suppliers, whose products are sold in local grocery and discount stores, confine cows to large barns or pens, offering only rare opportunities to graze, and then on substandard pasture, he said.

Grazing is part of cows' natural behavior and a good form of exercise, said Dr. Hubert Karreman, a Gap-based bovine veterinarian who serves on the National Organic Standards Board. Studies also show that it boosts cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acids in the resulting milk.

And, Karreman said, consumers simply like to see cows out in the pasture.

The Cornucopia Institute and other critics say it's impossible for a herd of thousands to graze adequately. Natural Dairy Products's MacArthur, whose company collects milk from 11 small Lancaster County Amish farms, said large dairies — and the lower prices their products command — put family farmers at a huge disadvantage.

Organic dairy is about more than just avoiding hormones and antibiotics, MacArthur said. True organic products come from small family farmers who allow their cows to eat as much grass as possible, he said.

"[Large dairies] don't abide by the rules," he said. "They have no commitment to organic. It's entirely about money. ... It's insane that they can be certified organic."

But Karreman said small farmers alone can't meet the rising demand for organic milk. There's no reason large farms can't be considered organic, he said, as long as they follow the rules.

"What's the problem?" he said. "What's [farm size] got to do with feeding people?"

'Natural' doesn't mean organic.
"Natural" is the leading label claim, appearing on nearly 1 in 4 new food and drink products, according to Mintel, a global market researcher.

But unlike "organic," "natural" has no seal, regulation or certification — or even a concrete definition.

"[Natural] doesn't mean anything," Cornucopia's Kastel said. "You just have to believe whatever the marketer says. ... Nobody is looking over their shoulders."

And a recent study by the Shelton Group, a public-relations and advertising firm focused on sustainable living, shows that consumers don't understand the difference.

In the survey, 56 percent of people chose natural as the "best" term on a product label. Only 26 percent — less than half as many — picked organic.

More respondents chose natural, not organic, as the government-regulated term. They also apparently thought organic was just a fancy word for "expensive."

Julie Elrod, a Lancaster city certified health counselor, said even well-informed consumers can get confused.

"We're constantly bombarded with decisions, and it's hard to make the right one," she said. "There are so many sides to the story, and everybody wants you on their side."

Retailers, Kastel said, aren't rushing to clarify any sources of confusion. And untrained employees might not distinguish between natural and organic.

Adding to consumer confusion, some companies are introducing natural product lines, often billed as lower-priced alternatives to organics.

Dean Foods' formerly organic-only Horizon brand, for example, now offers its first natural product, a yogurt aimed at toddlers. Horizon dropped "organic" from its name but kept elements of its distinctive red packaging.

In some grocery stores, products matching both descriptions intermingle in sections marked "natural and organic."

Robyn Talley, a Lititz consumer, said it's easy to see why many people fall victim to marketing practices that might be intentionally murky.

"Just because it's 'natural' doesn't mean it's good for you," she said. "Arsenic is natural, too. You don't want to be pumping that into your body."

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