I was in a debate on the Slow Food listserv this weekend about the rider to the Agriculture Bill that weakened organic standards. The debate, between me and an owner of a large organic processing facility, was very helpful in clarifying my thoughts on the subject, so I was grateful for the opportunity. One of the points that I regret not commenting on was that the "USDA Organic" seal does not state that the product is at least 95% organic on the label, so that is why it is misleading.
Here is an image of how four different cereal boxes might look under the current standards (from Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts).
Now look at just the second one from the left. Without knowing the particulars of the USDA Organic system, and without seeing the comparisons with the products on either side, might you think that this product was totally organic?
Here's the link for Labeling Requirements for foods that are at least 95% organic. Why didn't they simply decide to use a seal that says 95% organic instead of the same seal used for 100% organic? That would have been a good compromise.
Since the consumer does not have access to this information on the package, usage of the USDA seal implies that there are no synthetic ingredients used. Whether the ingredients are benign or not has nothing to do with the fact that this label misleads the public. Personally, I don't care if organic manufacturers use baking powder or ascorbic acid in their foods. That's not the issue. The issue is that others might, and the labeling should be accurate and transparent.
For example, Monsanto and the USDA think that genetic engineering is beneficial to agriculture. Whether something is benign or not is highly subjective. But you can't make a synthetic ingredient organic. Once you begin re-defining words to make them fit what you would like for them to mean, you are opening the door to an Orwellian world of uncertainty in what should be an objective process.
Okay, let's say that you don't find that these 38 added ingredients to the National List are a big deal. Neither do I, really. You haven't seen the most disturbing part yet. This paragraph at the Organic Consumers Association sums it up:
"For the first time, the Secretary will have the power to expedite petitions for access to the list of substances that are commercially unavailable in organic form. Right now there are 38 synthetic substances on the National List that have been carefully reviewed and approved by the National Organic Standards Board over the past ten years. Eight more synthetic substances have been reviewed and approved by the NOSB and are awaiting USDA authority to be placed on the National List. The industry has requested that 517 more synthetic substances be approved. In all likelihood, this new power granted to the Secretary will be the opening of the floodgate to these hundreds of synthetic ingredients being allowed in products labeled 'USDA Organic.'"
"The Secretary may develop emergency procedures for designating agricultural products that are commercially unavailable in organic form for placement on the National List for a period of time not to exceed 12 months."
See this page for the specific language of the amendment.
The Secretary of Agriculture is Mike Johanns. From the Center for Responsible Politics:
Archer Daniels Midland; Kraft (Altria); Tyson Foods; ConAgra
Raised on a dairy farm in Iowa, Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns was nominated by President Bush to take over the Department of Agriculture from Secretary Ann Veneman. First elected in 1998, Johanns became the first Republican to win a second term as governor in the state in more than four decades, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics. A little more than $108,000 of the $2.3 million Johanns raised between 1999 and 2002 came from agricultural companies including Archer Daniels Midland, Kraft and Tyson Foods and the Nebraska-based ConAgra, Follow the Money reported. While these businesses are key to the state’s economy, they are also subject to federal regulations set by the department that Johanns will be heading. The bulk of Johanns' campaign war chest came from individual contributors, who gave a combined total of more than $900,000, or 38 percent of his total, Follow the Money reported.
The Secretary from 2001 to 2005? Ann Veneman. I guess that we should count our blessings (from Common Dreams):
"Veneman has served as a key member of the Reagan and Bush administration farm teams, as director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture during the gubernatorial administration of agribusiness favorite Pete Wilson, as an agribusiness lawyer and as a member of the national steering committee of Farmers and Ranchers for Bush. In those positions she has rarely missed an opportunity to promote a free-trade regimen that advances the interests of international food production and processing conglomerates, to encourage policies that lead to the displacement of family farms with huge factory farms, to open public lands for mineral extraction and timbering, to support genetic modification of food and to defend biotech experimentation with agriculture. Indeed, Veneman is a biotech absolutist who served on the board of Calgene, the corporation that launched the first genetically engineered food in 1994. Veneman told a forum last year, 'We simply will not be able to feed the world without biotechnology.'"
So. Do you, as an organic or sustainable consumer, trust the Secretary of Agriculture or the USDA to regulate organic certification? The Bush administration has three more years until we boot them out. The way things are going in D.C. Bush may appoint another director of a Monsanto-owned company to the post before you can blink an eye. Think that the Democrats would be better? I wouldn't count on it. Most of them are as brainwashed about industrial agriculture as the Republicans.
Buy locally and sustainably produced foods and food products. Ask your farmer and food artisan about his or her practices. Many are organic or mostly organic and cannot advertise it because they are not certified. Many have chosen not to be a part of this flawed system.
Show the power of the organic consumer by not buying these "organic" products (from the Non-Corporate Food Shopper's Guide) when they display the USDA Organic seal without the 100% designation:
- Brand Name(s): Silk Soy Milk, Horizon Dairy
Owned By: White Wave
Principle Stockholders: Dean Foods
Significantly Owned By: Citigroup, Coca Cola, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Home Depot, Microsoft, Pepsico, Pfizer, Philip Morris, Walmart
- Brand Name(s): Balance Bar, Boca Burger
Owned By: Kraft Foods.
Principle Stockholders: Philip Morris
- Brand Name(s): Knudsen, After the Fall, Santa Cruz
Owned By: J.M. Smucker
Significantly Owned By: Pepsico
- Brand Name(s): Stonyfield Farms
Owned By: Danone
Principle Stockholders: Citigroup, Exxon, General Electric,Walmart
- Brand Name(s): Arrowhead Mills, Bearitos, Breadshop, Celestial Seasonings, Earth's Best Baby Food, Garden of Eatin, Health Valley, Imagine Foods, Terra Chips, Westbrae, Millina's, Mountain Sun, Shari Ann's, Walnut Acres
Owned By: Hain Food Group
Principle Stockholders: Bank of America, Entergy Nuclear, ExxonMobil, H.J. Heinz, Lockheed Martin, Merck, Monsanto, Pfizer, Philip Morris, Walmart, Waste Management Inc.
Significantly Owned By: Citigroup
- Brand Name(s): Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen
Owned By: Small Planet Foods
Principle Stockholders: General Mills
Significantly Owned By: Alcoa, Chevron, Disney, Dupont, ExxonMobil, General Electric, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nike, Pepsico, Pfizer, Philip Morris, Starbucks, Target, Texas Instruments
Items in bold are companies that I personally boycott and not a judgment one way or another against others on the list. It won't be easy to boycott all these items, especially the Hain Food Group and Small Planet Foods. But I think that I can find alternatives until they do, and I'll feel better for it.
And I'm not worried about the OTA's claim that "if Congress had not acted, many of the organic products consumers know and love would have disappeared." Puh-lease. Just change the labeling so that it is trustworthy, as over 300,000 of your customers have asked. Give us that much respect, and don't try to trick us into paying premium prices for misleading labels.
If we don't fight this, what will we do when the government and industry wants to force the next new questionable ingredient on the organic standards?
Later this week: Sustainable vs. Organic.