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Integrity of Federal 'Organic' Label Questioned
The USDA created the National Organic Program in 2002 to implement the law. By then, major food companies had bought up most small, independent organic companies. Kraft Foods, for example, owns Boca Foods. Kellogg owns Morningstar Farms, and Coca-Cola owns 40 percent of Honest Tea, maker of the organic beverage favored by President Obama.
That corporate firepower has added to pressure on the government to expand the definition of what is organic, in part because processed foods offered by big industry often require ingredients, additives or processing agents that either do not exist in organic form or are not available in large enough quantities for mass production.
Under the original organics law, 5 percent of a USDA-certified organic product can consist of non-organic substances, provided they are approved by the National Organic Standards Board. That list has grown from 77 to 245 substances since it was created in 2002. Companies must appeal to the board every five years to keep a substance on the list, explaining why an organic alternative has not been found. The goal was to shrink the list over time, but only one item has been removed so far.
The original law's mandate for annual pesticide testing was also never implemented -- the agency left that optional.
From the beginning, farmers and consumer advocates were concerned about safeguarding the organic label. In 2003, Arthur Harvey, who grows organic blueberries in Maine, successfully sued the USDA, arguing that the fledgling National Organic Program had violated federal law by allowing synthetic additives.
"The big boys like Kraft realized they could really cash in by filling the shelves with products with the organics seal," Harvey said. "But they were sort of inhibited by the original law that said no synthetic ingredients."
His victory was short-lived. The Organic Trade Association, which represents corporations such as Kraft, Dole and Dean Foods, lobbied for and received language in a 2006 appropriations bill allowing certain synthetic food substances in the preparation, processing and packaging of organic foods, creating conditions for a flood of processed organic foods.
Tom Harding, a Pennsylvania-based consultant for small local farmers and big producers, including Kraft, said that broadening the law has helped meet demand by multiplying the number of organic products and greatly expanded the amount of agricultural land that is being managed organically.
"We don't want to eliminate anyone who wants to be a part of the organic community," Harding said. "The growth we've seen has helped the entire organic food chain."
Organics for Babies
Today, labels on organic infant formula boast that they include DHA and ARA, synthetic fatty acids that some studies suggest can help neural development. But according to agency records, when the issue came before the USDA in 2006, agency staff members concluded that the fatty acids could not be added to organic baby formula because they are synthetics that are not on the standards board's approved list.
The fatty acids in formula are often produced using a potential neurotoxin known as hexane, prompting many organics advocates to conclude that the board would not approve their use if it took up the matter.
In a rare move, Barbara Robinson, who administers the organics program and is a deputy USDA administrator, overruled the staff decision after a telephone call and an e-mail exchange with William J. Friedman, a lawyer who represents the formula makers.