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Integrity of Federal 'Organic' Label Questioned

"I called [Robinson] up," Friedman said. "I wrote an e-mail. It was a simple matter." The back-and-forth, he said, was nothing more than part of the routine process that sets policy in Washington.

In an interview, Robinson said she agreed with Friedman's argument that fatty acids were not permitted because of an oversight. Vitamins and minerals are allowed, but "accessory nutrients" -- the category that describes fatty acids -- are not specifically named.

As for hexane, Robinson said the law bans its use in processing organic food, but she does not believe the ban extends to the processing of synthetic additives.

"We don't attempt to say how synthetic products can be produced," she said.

Manufacturers say the fatty acids are safe and provide health benefits to infants.

"We test every lot that comes out for hexane, and there is no residue," said David Abramson, president of Maryland-based Martek Biosciences, which produces the fatty acids used by formula companies.

Several groups have filed complaints with the USDA saying they think that the inclusion of the fatty acids in organic products violates federal rules and laws. And they say that Robinson did not have the authority to make the decision on her own.

"This is illegal rulemaking -- a complete violation of the process that is supposed to protect the public," said Gary Cox, a lawyer with the Cornucopia Institute, an organics advocacy group.

Cox and others make the same argument about other decisions by Robinson and several members of her staff.

In 2004, Robinson issued a directive allowing farmers and certifiers to use pesticides on organic crops if "after a reasonable effort" they could not determine whether the pesticide contained chemicals prohibited by the organics law.

The same year, Robinson determined that farmers could feed organic livestock non-organic fish meal, which can contain mercury and PCBs. The law requires that animals that produce organic meat be raised entirely on organic feed.

After sharp protests from Leahy, Consumers Union and other groups, Ann Veneman, then agriculture secretary, rescinded these and two other directives issued by Robinson.

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