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Letter From The Editor: “Certified Organic”

If USDA was not the government, would the law look at the way it uses the “organic” label as “misbranding” or possibility a claim that it just cannot substantiate?

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is the federal government, and the law does not apply to Uncle Sam.   And, it is the AMS that runs the National Organic Program.   It can freely do what might cause you and I some painful time in court.

Take for example that the AMS-run National Organic Standards Board maintains a list of non-organic ingredients that can be labeled as organic.  Let me say that another way: USDA has a list of stuff that can be labeled as “certified organic” even if they’ve been doused with chemicals and pesticides.

“Organic” is not on the menu at the Moxee, WA-based Hop Growers of America.  Nor is it likely to be, because hops are on the national list of non-organics that may be labeled organic.  Hops got on the list in 2007 because, it was said, there are too few domestically grown organic hops.

All of you who have been paying extra for “organic beer” are victims of consumer fraud brought to you by USDA’s organic program.  Fat chance you can do anything about it. 

 

My head has been spinning about the federal organic program since I accidently stepped into it.  It began simply enough a couple of weeks ago when a California association lost its accreditation for certifying organic producers and haulers.

I was curious about what happened to those it had certified as “organic.”  Were they now de-certified?  As it turned out, nothing changes for a certified organic producer if its agent is decertified.   The organic producer or hauler remains certified, but needs to go through the process with another agent.

The first sentence on that story said; “Twenty years after Congress put the federal government in the business of promoting pesticide and chemical free agriculture, USDA’s Organic label is now a trusted symbol.”

If I had it to do over again, I think I would write: “Twenty years after Congress put USDA in charge of marketing the Organic label, there is more confusion than ever about buying pesticide- and chemical-free food.”

This adjustment in my thinking occurred in part because Harry Hamil at the Black Mountain Farmers Market in North Carolina challenged me to take another look at it, and because I’ve now actually read that 20-year old federal law setting up the National Organic Program.

Federal laws, if you haven’t heard, are pretty wordy documents.   If the NOP were really about chemical- and pesticide-free food, those goals and objectives would be spelled out then and there, and they’re not.  

Hamil says the NOP “assured that almost all certified organic food is sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.”   He is certainly right when it comes to hops, and if USDA is going to play that fast and loose in one area, why would consumers trust the rest of it? 

 

It makes me wonder if the certified organic community could stand up to independent testing.

If you want organic beer in America, you may wish to join the petition to USDA to end this hop charade. 

© Food Safety News
  • Steve Gilman

    Mr Editor — This is one of the most cursory, simplistic and reductionist appraisals of the National Organic Program I’ve come across in a long time. Please check your sources. While the system has had many ups and downs since the Organic Foods Production Act was passed in 1990, Organic still remains the Gold Standard for verification of production methods in our food supply. “Sustainable?” “Natural?” “Non-GMO?”– nothing else comes close…. Just the fact that there is a citizen National Organic Standards Board in place to take testimony and review things like hops is unique in government. Why don’t you go to the NOSB meeting and find out for yourself? But please don’t confuse the views of those who are anti-govenment by philosophy with realistic appraisals of how things are actually working on the ground…
    Thank you

  • As with USDA’s dismissal of Federal law – so is FDA. Although the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act law includes protection of animal food/pet food – and although the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act states NO food can contain an ingredient sourced from a diseased animal or animal that has died other than slaughter…FDA Compliance policy allows commercial pet food to render (cook) euthanized animals and diseased animals which become popular pet food ingredients.
    A 2004 Report prepared for Congress – found here: http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RS21771.pdf
    explains rendering.
    This document told the 110th Congress “sources of materials” rendered include “dead animals from farms, feedlots, and animal shelters”…processed into ingredients in animal food and pet food.
    A clear violation of Federal law – but the FDA says it’s ok.
    How can Federal Agencies – be allowed to violate Federal Law? Fine example our government agencies are setting.

  • I applaud the first commenter. I have little to add, but would like to point out for the uninformed that beer labeled “organic” like all other products labeled “organic” must contain no more than 5% nonorganic ingredients.
    Further, the brewer must provide evidence that the variety of hops used is not available in organic form. Seeing as hops are a small (but delicious) component and their organic production is not widespread, they are often allowed (for now).
    When I purchase organic beer, I’d like it to say “100% Organic”. It’d be nice if the the supply of organic hops increased to the point where hops are not permitted to be nonorganic. Until then, I’d hope consumers could be realistic (and appreciate the 95% of ingredients that are certified organic). It’d be nice if producers would not undermine NOP, but rather utilize the USDA, as they work to increase the market for organic hops.

  • If I could amend my last posting, I’d like to point out that beer is mostly water. However, the 95% requirement does not include added salt or water.

  • Dan, I’m surprised that none of the comments have questioned the accuracy of my statement, “the NOP ‘assured that almost all certified organic food is sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.'”
    For the record, I was quoted correctly and I have no doubt my statement is wrong. I intended to say “and fungicides,” not “herbicides” but messed up. In fact, though it is theoretically possible, I never heard of any herbicide use in organic agriculture. As I used the conjunction “and” I have no doubt my statement is wrong.
    As for pesticides and fungicides, I know of no certified organic grower that doesn’t use them regularly. Because of the premium that people pay for certified organic produce, it has a very high visual standard. During the peak of production a couple of years ago, I know firsthand of tomatoes rejected for a “bruised shoulder” that was so minor, it took me close to 15 seconds to find it while looking straight at it.
    It is the confusion in the minds of consumers that bothers me.
    Over the last dozen years, I’ve asked hundreds of my customers what “organic” means. Not 1 in 10 has actually known and, at least, 3 out of 4 has answered some variation of “no pesticides, no fungicides.”
    This is due to poor reporting in almost all news media and inaccurate statements by those who should know better. For example, Sec. of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, in announcing the USDA garden, a couple of years ago equated organic with no pesticides.
    Unfortunately, I know of no case where someone in a position of authority in the organic movement every correct such an error

  • Instead of “every correct” in the last sentence of my earlier comment, it should have read, “has ever corrected.”
    Another proofreading mistake by me.

  • Harry neglects to mention that these pesticides and fungicides also are required to be made of ingredients that are certified as organic and approved by the EPA.
    This from the USDA:
    ” Can the NOP seal be used on pesticides?
    Generally, no. However, we have allowed EPA approved pesticides that are produced entirely with certified organic ingredients plus minor ingredients listed on 205.605 to be sold as organic and use the NOP seal because, theoretically, they could be certified as an agricultural product, such as food, under the regulations.”
    This from Cornell:
    “The USDA-NOP regulation requires that pesticides must have active ingredients that are either considered natural, or are synthetic and appear on the National List (7CFR 205.600-607).”
    …”Generally, nearly all synthetics are prohibited, unless they appear on the National List, and all naturals are allowed, unless they appear on the list as prohibited. Listed synthetics must be used as indicated, such as for disease or insect control, and may have further restrictions on crop or method of application.”
    “The EPA established a voluntary labeling program in 2003 that permits the use of the term “for organic production” on pesticide labels for products that are compliant with NOP regulations. The EPA will review the product formulation to verify that the active and inert ingredients are compliant. They will not permit this term to be used if other (alternate) non-compliant formulations are marketed under the same registration number. EPA also requires that all label instructions are consistent with organic standards.”
    From Myself:
    I am sure most buyers of certified organic products would not be terrified by the idea that the plants were treated with an organic pesticide who’s active ingredients are organic garlic, organic mint, organic rosemary, organic etc., organic etc.
    I feel I must caution all those involved in the discussion that just because a pesticide is labeled organic does not mean you should drink it.

  • Jess C. Rajan, Ph.D.

    The Organic Foods Production Act [7 U.S.C. § 6506 (a)(6)] requires “periodic residue testing by certifying agents of agricultural products that have been produced on certified organic farms and handled through certified organic handling operations to determine whether such products contain any pesticide or other nonorganic residue or natural toxicants and to require certifying agents, to the extent that such agents are aware of a violation of applicable laws relating to food safety, to report such violation to the appropriate health agencies;”
    As noted in a March 2010 USDA/OIG Audit Report, USDA/AMS has not included these chemical testing/reporting requirements in the NOP.
    http://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/01601-03-HY.pdf

  • Dan, I’m surprised that none of the comments have questioned the accuracy of my statement, “the NOP ‘assured that almost all certified organic food is sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.'”
    For the record, I was quoted correctly and I have no doubt my statement is wrong. I intended to say “and fungicides,” not “herbicides” but messed up. In fact, though it is theoretically possible, I never heard of any herbicide use in organic agriculture. As I used the conjunction “and” I have no doubt my statement is wrong.
    As for pesticides and fungicides, I know of no certified organic grower that doesn’t use them regularly. Because of the premium that people pay for certified organic produce, it has a very high visual standard. During the peak of production a couple of years ago, I know firsthand of tomatoes rejected for a “bruised shoulder” that was so minor, it took me close to 15 seconds to find it while looking straight at it.
    It is the confusion in the minds of consumers that bothers me.
    Over the last dozen years, I’ve asked hundreds of my customers what “organic” means. Not 1 in 10 has actually known and, at least, 3 out of 4 has answered some variation of “no pesticides, no fungicides.”
    This is due to poor reporting in almost all news media and inaccurate statements by those who should know better. For example, Sec. of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, in announcing the USDA garden, a couple of years ago equated organic with no pesticides.
    Unfortunately, I know of no case where someone in a position of authority in the organic movement every correct such an error

  • Instead of “every correct” in the last sentence of my earlier comment, it should have read, “has ever corrected.”
    Another proofreading mistake by me.

  • Steve Gilman

    To Harry Hamil: It’s a fact of agricultural life that even organic farmers commit pesticide, fungicide, herbicide, etc to bring in their crops. Most growers and gardeners intrinsically understand this and this understanding has been built into the National Organic Program from the git go. However, the DIFFERENCE between the the pesticides, fungicides, herbicides (and their so-called inerts in the formulations) used by conventional farmers and those allowed by the National Organic Program for Organic Certification is HUGE — toxic synthetic chemicals, endocrine disruptors, etc. designed to obliterate vs. kinder and gentler (to humans, anyway) naturally derived substances designed to control. And surveys show that’s what the public understands to one extent or another.
    To Mr Rajan: You make it sound like the the Organic Program is inherently fraudulent. Regulatory legislation passed by Congress has to undergo a further rule-making phase by the governing Agency, which then interprets the legislation. In this case it took USDA two attempts to finally formulate an Organic Rule — the first was badly skewed, allowing GMOs, sewage sludge, food irradiation, etc. due to malicious input via the Office of Management and Budget — that exists to put the Administration’s personal stamp on Agency actions. Agencies are also supposed to adhere to the Intent of Congress, however, and in the case of the National Organic Program — Organic Certification was clearly designed to be a process-oriented certification not a testing one, partially because of the great expense involved. Instead, trained independent inspectors are hired by NOP Accredited Certifiers to annually inspect farms and the farmers must provide extensive documentation — including an Audit trail to provide traceability in the marketplace (recently embraced by the pending Food Safety legislation). Although the NOP does not require residue testing on a general basis, it is used selectively and randomly by Certifiers. And big buyers, such as the National Cooperative grocers Association conduct their own testing programs…

  • Doc Mudd

    “Certified organic” is merely a marketing method.
    No significant difference in product…except higher price and snob appeal that comes with that. It provides a convenient platform from which the self-righteous can bash modern agriculture and attempt to frighten the common folk. Quibbling over traces of this and fashionability of that – an amusing waste of time…and money. 95% organic ingredients, indeed.

  • As there are quite a few “Steve Gilman’s,” I want to clarify who the “Steve Gilman” is who is commenting. I believe this “Steve Gilman” is one of the pillars of organic farming, the owner of Ruckytucks Farm in Stillwater, NY, part-time Policy Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), author on organic farming methods and long-time advocate of the original spirit the created the organic movement. And, as I recall, he has walked his organic talk for over 30 years.
    In short, when he says or writes something, I am very interested in understanding his message.
    In this instance, it seems to me that he overstates the case.
    I agree that “pesticides, fungicides, herbicides (and their so-called inerts in the formulations)” vary from benign to very dangerous. This is true for BOTH conventional AND organic sprays. Unfortunately, I have heard of few studies comparing competing products (e.g., Daconil & Serenade) from efficacy to toxicity to side effects. This is work that needs to be done.
    Dr. Rajan has raised a very important point about residues and, in my mind, a clear failure of the AMS and the NOSB to follow through on the spirit of the legislation. As I recall, the “Certified Naturally Grown” program requires residue testing.
    But all of this is off the issues raised by Dan Flynn. Is the public’s perception of certified organic substantially off the mark? If so, are the AMS, NOSB, NOC and OTA actively trying to make clear the actual situation and improve it?
    Finally, people like Steve Gilman have invested gargantuan amounts of time and money into spreading the original, important message of the organic movement. I applaud their commitment. I believe I honor that spirit by raising these questions about the AMS’s “certified organic” version of the larger movement.

  • @Doc Mudd
    In its review of the evidence as to whether or not organic produce has higher nutrient levels than conventionally grown produce, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found the evidence inconclusive.
    In the DGAC’s summary of select studies, organic did better than conventional 3 out of 7. One study found climate to be a greater influence and 3 out of 7 found no significant difference. In none of the studies cited did the DGAC note conventional produce demonstrating a higher level of nutrients than organic.
    One must also consider soil quality. Just the latest study that has crossed my path. Showed higher quality fruit and soil in organic production. http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0012346
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/09/organic-strawberriesbetter-nutrition-healthier-soil/
    There’s also the issue of production of synthetic chemicals and the pollution and waste involved, as well as other issues that motivate people to buy organic. Snob appeal is pretty low on the list, especially since organic produce can be had cheaper than its counterparts in some instances.

  • Steve Gilman

    Thanks for your kind words, Harry. Yep, I’ve been involved in Organic for quite awhile I guess…
    As imperfect as the National Organic Program (NOP) may be, I have to reiterate that it still is the Gold Standard for a safe and sustainable food supply. I’m fortunate to work with a wide spectrum of dedicated people around the country who are working hard to keep the integrity alive in Organic– and I have to say that after spending the past decade in the wilderness there are some good people within the NOP now, working to make this happen. When you consider that Organic is essentially a low energy, solar-based agriculture whose essence is based on sequestering atmospheric carbon to build soil organic matter, with many valuable environmental and health effects then it’s clearly the way to go…

  • As there are quite a few “Steve Gilman’s,” I want to clarify who the “Steve Gilman” is who is commenting. I believe this “Steve Gilman” is one of the pillars of organic farming, the owner of Ruckytucks Farm in Stillwater, NY, part-time Policy Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), author on organic farming methods and long-time advocate of the original spirit the created the organic movement. And, as I recall, he has walked his organic talk for over 30 years.
    In short, when he says or writes something, I am very interested in understanding his message.
    In this instance, it seems to me that he overstates the case.
    I agree that “pesticides, fungicides, herbicides (and their so-called inerts in the formulations)” vary from benign to very dangerous. This is true for BOTH conventional AND organic sprays. Unfortunately, I have heard of few studies comparing competing products (e.g., Daconil & Serenade) from efficacy to toxicity to side effects. This is work that needs to be done.
    Dr. Rajan has raised a very important point about residues and, in my mind, a clear failure of the AMS and the NOSB to follow through on the spirit of the legislation. As I recall, the “Certified Naturally Grown” program requires residue testing.
    But all of this is off the issues raised by Dan Flynn. Is the public’s perception of certified organic substantially off the mark? If so, are the AMS, NOSB, NOC and OTA actively trying to make clear the actual situation and improve it?
    Finally, people like Steve Gilman have invested gargantuan amounts of time and money into spreading the original, important message of the organic movement. I applaud their commitment. I believe I honor that spirit by raising these questions about the AMS’s “certified organic” version of the larger movement.

  • Doc Mudd

    Sorry Bulger, no significant difference between organic and conventional foods. That’s pretty clearly concluded by your chosen source, the DGAC:
    “Our current understanding of conventional and organically produced foods indicate that their nutritional value and contributions to human health are similar.”
    Look it up in Resource 3. “Similar” means ‘not different’, you do know? No significant difference, baby, case closed. Organic is just a marketing ploy – nothing but a relentless cherrypicking sales pitch, slick.
    If snob appeal doesn’t top your list, does it place above or below gullibility? At least organic snob appeal isn’t fattening so you can eat all you want, eh?

  • Similar indicates two subjects, necessitating difference.
    As you can see from the DGAC report, organics showed higher nutrient levels when differences were evident. Nothing to add on soil quality, resource input, environmental concerns, etc., Mr. Mudd?

  • Doc Mudd

    Nope, nothing more to add – snob appeal adequately covers the entire “certified organic” phenomenon.
    “Certified organic” — splitting hairs to land a big payday. “Oh my, but there’s this piddling imagined ‘difference’ and that trifling wishful ‘benefit’ I want to tell you about from my own experience.” Nonsense…in the light of reality it’s all dreamy nonsense..for a price. Caveat emptor.
    You guys work much, much too hard at cherrypicking feeble support for your groundless “organic” sales pitch.

  • Not very convincing, Mudd. It has been a pleasure.
    And thanks to FSN.

  • Finally – some rational thinking about the term “certified organic”. Unfortunately well intended approaches have turned into a marketing hype. I wish there were more discussion like this in the public. Thank you.