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Survey: Consumers Might Read Organic Label Differently Than Organic Standards Board

The Consumer Reports National Research Center says that “questionable practices” remain in the regulation of the fast-growing organics industry.

It is hoping that new public opinion research released today as the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) begins a four-day meeting in San Antonio will help narrow the divide between what consumers think they are getting and what industry regulation actually delivers.

A representative survey of 1,016 adult U.S. residents, commissioned by Consumer Reports, found that 84 percent buy organic food and 45 percent do so at least once a month. Most think the organic label, which is sometimes called the USDA seal, means that no toxic pesticides were used (81 percent), or that no antibiotics were used (61 percent).

However, Consumer Reports says that, while federal law prohibits synthetic substances in organic agriculture and food processing – including synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones and artificial food ingredients – the 15-member NOSB can and does issue exemptions for up to five years at time.

In San Antonio, the NOSB meeting will include deliberations on several material exemptions, including use of the antibiotic streptomycin on apples and pears, synthetic materials for aquaculture (before standards for organic fish have been defined), artificial ingredients (methionine) in poultry feed, and how these exemptions are handled after the five-year permitted-use period has ended.

Consumer Reports has long opposed the proliferation of exemptions and says that their renewed listing does not represent what consumers expect from the organic label.

It says the recent survey underscores this point with seven out of 10 Americans expressing they wanted as few artificial ingredients as possible.

“Despite the fact that the public does not want a host of artificial ingredients in their organic food, some national advisers and decision-makers in the National Organic Program have overtly expressed a desire to grow the exemption list in order to grow the organic market. We believe this violates the public’s trust of what organic means,” says Dr. Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.

The survey also found:

  • Organic Produce: The majority of consumers think organic produce should not have pesticides (91 percent of consumers) or antibiotics (86 percent). The NOSB members will vote on ending the exemption for streptomycin on apples and pears, which has been re-listed many times.
  • Organic Fish: Nearly all consumers (92 percent) want at least one federal standard for organic fish. The vast majority of consumers think federal standards should require that: (1) 100-percent organic feed is used, (2) no antibiotics or other drugs are used, and (3) no colors are added. The NOSB is considering aquaculture materials  – despite the absence of standards – at this meeting
  •  Sunset Process: An overwhelming percentage of consumers (84 percent) think the use of artificial ingredients in organic products should be discontinued, if not reviewed, after 5 years; few consumers (15 percent) endorse continued use of the artificial ingredient without review.

In September 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program changed the review process. Under the new policy, an exempt material could be permitted indefinitely unless a two-thirds majority of the NOSB votes to remove an exempted (synthetic) substance from the list. The new policy allows USDA to relist exemptions for synthetic materials without the recommendation of the independent board and outside of public view, which used to be required.

The original authors of the organic law, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), have urged USDA to reverse this policy change, saying that it “turns the sunset policy of the Organic Foods Production Act on its head” and is “in conflict with both the letter and the intent of the statute.”

The issue of sunset will be raised as part of the public comment portion of the NOSB meeting.

© Food Safety News
  • tallen2007

    When I see “USDA Organic” at the store to me it means – same product, double the price. I only trust local or state 3rd party certified organic like NOFA or MOFGA. I have a friend that used to drive a truck in CA and she says she routinely picked up boxes IN THE SAME FIELD that were half marked organic and half not!

    • beetle

      USDA does not directly certify farms. They accredit certification agencies to do the inspection and evaluation according to the national standards. NOFA and MOFGA are 2 of those certifiers. When you buy product certified by these agencies you are buying products that comply with the USDA regulations. These agencies don’t have their own separate standards.

  • Thom Katt

    When it comes down the end of things, the organic label is mostly just a marketing tool to differentiate one person’s item from the commodity item. As has been proven over and over, there is little functional difference in the differentiated item and the standard of differenciation is easily compromised when things get a little difficult. As long a people want to pay for that differenctiation, more power to them. If they don’t get what they think they are paying for (and they won’t) that is on the customer. They should have done more to find out what they were actually getting. I think P.T. Barnum would have enjoyed observing organic consumers.

  • Thom Katt

    You use the exact argument for your pears treated with streptomycin as conventional pork, poultry, beef, lamb and dairy producers use for treating with tetracyclene etc. Consumers believe that organic doesn’t include antibiotics anywhere along the husbandry chain. Same for other synthetic substances. You aren’t giving consuemers what they think they are paying for.

    • pawpaw

      Thom,
      I’ll try to briefly summarize my point: Organic production standards have taught me to produce pears without antibiotics. Same for all other produce my customers buy and enjoy. Could you please explain the deception in this?
      A restricted-use tool of last resort is just that. It takes time and money to spray. It pays me to embrace other methods, such as choosing crops which seldom get sick in the first place, then growing them to further minimize this risk.
      As I’ve written before on this issue: please talk with/observe organic growers before assuming the worst. We’ve a farm visit of 30 this Friday.

  • Greg

    If the USDA wants to make the organic label useless they are on the right track. Once people lose confidence in the label, the organic market will shrink not grow. It is bad enough that arsenic can be used because it is a naturally occuring substance, along with many other naturally occuring pesticides. Anything know to be bad if consumed should not be allowed as well as anything suspected. The fact that they are going to allow exemptions for sythetic materials outside of public view and the independend board tells me it is pretty much over already.