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Organics is fastest growing food industry segment – can labels be trusted?

By Mary Ann Lien

Article from

Vancouver Granville Market
Vancouver Granville Market
photo: Matt Skallerud

The organic food market is big business. In 1990 the sale of organic food and beverages totaled one billion dollars. By 2007 sales grew to $20 billion, and according to The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics & Emerging Trends 2008, global demand is continuing to grow by $5 billion annually. As a result, many highly recognizable organic brands such as Silk Soy, Celestial Seasonings, Horizon, Morningstar, and Boca Foods were bought by such corporate giants as Kraft Foods, Heinz, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Dean Foods, and Hain Celestial, and conglomerates like Monsanto, Philip Morris, Exxon-Mobil, Dupont, and Dow Chemical are just a few of their major investors. What was once primarily the territory of small local producers and farmers markets is now big corporate business.

USDA Organic seal
USDA Organic Seal

The organic movement started as a reaction to the industrialized nature of the food system. It spurned chemical pesticides and fertilizers, emphasized composting and other methods to bolster the health of soil and natural disease-fighting nutrients in plants, and smiled on small-scale local production.
“When "Organic" Doesn't Quite Mean Organic” by Dan Shapley, 07/19/07
The Daily Green

The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C.A. § 6501-22) required the USDA to establish requirements that a food product must meet to be labeled “organic,” and in 2002 the National Organic Program (NOP) administered by the USDA, was created to implement law. Four basic rules were established that state a product must be 100% organic to bear the label “100% organic,” a product with at least 95% organic ingredients can be labeled “organic,” at least 70% organic can be labeled “made with organic ingredients,” and products with less than 70% can only have the word organic in their list of ingredients.

It’s that allowable five percent of nonorganic ingredients in products labeled organic that causes questions to arise concerning the legitimacy of organic labeling. As organic food production grows beyond the small local producers and demand increases, limited availability of some organic ingredients plus the need for increased preservation measures to offer shelf life suitable for large chain distributors become issues. In addition, sustainable farming methods that work for small farms are impractical for large agricultural operations, and so pressure has been brought to bear on the USDA to relax standards and increase the number of nonorganic ingredients allowed.

The government's turnaround, from prohibition to permission, came after a USDA program manager was lobbied by the formula makers and overruled her staff. That decision and others by a handful of USDA employees, along with an advisory board's approval of a growing list of non-organic ingredients, have helped numerous companies win a coveted green-and-white "USDA Organic" seal on an array of products.
Kimberly Kindy, Lyndsey Layton—“Purity of Federal ‘Organic’ Label is Questioned,” Washington Post

The result according to Kindy and Layton is synthetic additives (DHA, ARA) in ninety percent of “organic” baby formulas, wood starch in organic shredded cheese, a synthetic ingredient to improve texture in organic mock duck, organic beer made with nonorganic hops. NOP’s list of nonorganic ingredients permitted to be included in foods labeled as organic has grown from 77 in 2002 to 245 ingredients, with new petitions pouring in. Pesticides and chemicals are also present in some products so long as they can be found on the NOP allowable list, a list that has grown from 77 ingredients in 2002 to 245 ingredients in 2008.

Organics advocates are concerned that the combination of vague regulations, inconsistent enforcement, the relaxing of standards, and the ever increasing pressure from big-agro lobbyists will spell the end to consumer confidence in the USDA Organic label.  

Sources & More info:
When "Organic" Doesn't Quite Mean Organic, by Dan Shapley
USDA: National Organic Program
Purity of Federal ‘Organic’ Label is Questioned, by Kimberly Kindy and Lyndsey Layton
Clouds on the Organic Horizon, by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero, Special to CorpWatch
Industry Statistics and Projected Growth – Organic Trade Association
Who Owns Your Favorite Organic Brand? by Maryanne Conlin (McMilker) – Eco Child’s Play

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