No such thing as organic?

There’s a reason organics is a $23 million industry and the fastest growing sector of the food market. Consumers like the idea of eating something pure, natural and untainted by synthetics, all while supporting sustainable agriculture.

So they may be surprised to hear that there are 245 allowable non-organic substances for foods labeled “organic” by the USDA. Technically, “organic” means that 5 percent of the product can be made from non-organic substances. That’s why synthetic additives—specifically, fatty acids intended to help neural development—are found in 90 percent of organic baby formula, why grated cheese contains wood starch, why organic beer can be made from non-organic hops, and why organic mock duck uses a synthetic ingredient to give it that chewy, meat-like texture. Those are examples given in an extensive story published last week by Kimberly Kindy and Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post regarding the purity of the federal “organic” label.

Somewhat ironically, that fast-growing organics market largely accounts for the pressure placed on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lower standards for it to accommodate more products—mostly processed ones. (Somehow we knew organic vegetarian sausage links were too good to be true.)

The National Organic Program was created by the USDA in 2002, and it banned synthetics, pesticides and genetic engineering from foods labeled “organic.” But big food corporations used to making processed foods were getting into the organics biz: Kraft Foods owns Boca Foods; Kellogg owns Morningstar Farms; and Coca-Cola owns 40 percent of Honest Tea, according to the Post. In 2006, the Organic Trade Association, which represents Kraft, Dole and Dean Foods, got language inserted into a 2006 appropriations bill that allowed certain synthetics in the making of organic food products.

Barbara Robinson, a deputy USDA administrator who runs the organics program, overruled a staff decision to ban the synthetics in baby formula, issued a directive to let farmers use pesticides when they couldn’t determine if they were prohibited by the organics law, and has “repeatedly opted not to issue standards spelling out how organic food must be grown, treated or produced,” the paper reported. She said in an interview with the Washington Post that “she believes the federal program’s main purpose is to ‘grow the industry,’ and she dismissed controversies over synthetics in organic foods as ‘mostly ridiculous.’”

Meanwhile, President Obama has doubled funding for the National Organic Program in his budget and selected USDA leaders who support protecting the organics label. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Post, “That term, ‘organic,’ needs to be pure. You can’t allow the definition to be eroded to where it means nothing. … We have to fight against that kind of pressure.”