Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Pure organic?

A handful of producers holding forth against big ag and big food has grown into, well, something that is starting to look like big ag and big food. So I exaggerate. Organic food production and processing is still a playground weakling compared to the whole agri-food complex.

But our weakling is starting to sprout some muscles of its own and the big boys on the playground have had to take a sidelong glance at the growth. Back when organic production was a handful of noisy producers there wasn't much interest beyond drawing definitive lines in the playground turf between who did what and how.

And as long as most of the food went from farmers to local customers it was a cute little niche. It was when the organic food started to get into the food processing and distribution chains that big ag and big food decided to get a piece of the margin.

Processed food can go to a supermarket shelf. On the shelf, organic products begin to squeeze all those other processed food products. And an organic "premium" looks good to Wal-Mart so they want more. They want mass production. They want it cheaper.

Hold it, I digress toward a rant.

Recently, there was a court ruling that basically said organic is organic and you don't go adding anything to it.

Chicago Tribune
Oct. 26, 2005

The law allows products that are 95 percent organic to carry the USDA organic seal, while products with at least 70 percent organic ingredients can advertise that they are made with organic ingredients. The Agriculture Department allows manufacturers to use up to 5 percent non-organic or synthetic ingredients and still receive the organic label, provided organic ingredients aren't available.

Court: No synthetics, period.

...a federal appellate court ruled in June that synthetic products couldn't be used at all in products with the organic label; companies often use such products as thickening agents or to give their products consistency. The court also ruled that the Agriculture Department could not give a blanket exemption to non-organic agriculture products, such as spices and oils, unless they were approved during a public process.

The court further ruled that dairy farmers must feed their cows 100 percent organic feed in the transition year before their milk could be sold as organic; currently, the USDA allows farmers to feed them 80 percent organic feed, and 20 percent conventional feed.

Processors went to the USDA to get that court ruling overturned. As far as I can tell at this point, the existing rules will continue as stated in the Chicago Tribune article. If the court ruling holds, then a whole bunch of processors have to make new labels or take products off the shelves.

web site for the global seed industry

Like organic standards used throughout the world, the U.S. organic standards have always allowed specific synthetic materials that are essential to making numerous organic processed products. These are non-agricultural materials, including items such as baking powder and a type of pectin, that are necessary in certain production and processing practices and have been used in producing foods for decades.

The current labeling requirements of the USDA National Organic Standard includes a 100% organic category (fresh and processed products) as well as the organic category (95% or more organic ingredients), and the made with organic category (70% or more organic ingredients.) Consumers have a choice in the products that they purchase because of these clearly defined labeling categories.

This is an issue that no doubt fractures organic producers. By allowing these processing additives, it's possible to expand the market, perhaps helping to make it a mass market for organic labels. The downside it that lax rules in processing will lead to food that's labeled as organic but not really organic in spirit or form.

More info:

USDA National Organic Program (NOP)

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