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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Got Organic?

Air Date: Week of

As the organic market grows, large-scale farming and production practices are stretching the traditional standards for organic foods. But some in the industry are trying to protect the purity of the organic label. Living on Earth's Ashley Ahearn reports.


YOUNG: Organic food is a booming business these days. We’re talking 20% annual growth rates in recent years. So, it may come as a bit of a surprise that the organic foods industry is in the midst of an identity crisis. Just what should that label, organic, mean? Those who want a more flexible definition face fierce opposition from purists who want to keep that standard high.

Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn reports the organic food fight isn’t over yet.

AHEARN: According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, 85 percent of people who buy organic foods were unaware of one important fact: the products labeled USDA “organic” are actually 95 percent organic. The other 5 percent can be, well, a lot of different things. That news surprised Mike Anastario, a biostatistician from Boston.

ANASTARIO: You know, we go out of our way to spend a lot of money on organics for that reason alone, because we think we're getting pure food, and so we wouldn't be doing that if we knew that any of it was synthetic. So I kind of almost feel like I’m scammed.

AHEARN: There are currently 38 synthetic substances that the National Organic Standards Board has approved as ingredients in organic food. They're mainly leavening agents such as baking soda, thickeners like pectin and cornstarch, and vitamins.

Current USDA guidelines allow for continued use of these 38 synthetic substances, and also permits use of emergency non-organic substitute ingredients if organic ones aren't commercially available.

MARGOLIS: Let me give you an example of when you might have a situation like that where that could come up.

AHEARN: That's Phil Margolis. He's president of the board of directors of the Organic Trade Association.

MARGOLIS: So most of the vanilla in the world comes from Madagascar and that area. And periodically they have hurricanes down there that kind of wipe out the entire crop. That would be the kind of emergency where the secretary of agriculture might decide to do something.

AHEARN: So food producers can use emergency substitutes, such as artificial vanilla, and still call their products USDA Organic, as long as the substitute makes up less than 5 percent of the product's weight. The USDA has yet to approve any emergency substitutes, so the criteria for what constitutes a quote "emergency" is still to be determined.

MARGOLIS: The way that most people within the policy world on organics anticipate this would occur is through some kind of regulations.

AHEARN: Until the details get hammered out, people in the organic food industry are worried. Among them, Mark Kastel. He’s the senior policy analyst for the Cornucopia Institute, a progressive farm policy research group.

KASTEL: There's that old adage, the devil's in the details. The laws that pass in Congress are generally quite broad.

AHEARN: Kastel acknowledges that some synthetics are necessary in today’s growing organic market. But he says that allowing for emergency substitutes will throw the door open for the introduction of even more non-organic substances in foods that should be 100 percent organic. Kastel says it’s part of a trend to weaken organic standards across the board.

Take the organic dairy industry, he says. Increasingly its products come from farms with thousands of cows kept in feed lots, not pastures, as organic standards require.

KASTEL: Part of organic agriculture is requiring pasture. Part of organic agriculture is carefully managing the animals from birth until the day they start to produce. And we found that these large corporations were gaming the system. It wasn’t really organic milk, it was faux organic.

AHEARN: The Cornucopia Institute will soon release a report rating organic dairy producers based on their farming practices. Horizon organic milk, which is the largest organic producer in the US refused to take part in the survey. A spokeswoman said the questions were biased and subjective. Phil Margolis of the Organic Trade Association agrees.

MARGOLIS: A certain agenda is trying to be furthered by a small group of individuals that have a particular opinion. So there are no non-organic producers in this survey to kind of compare organic practices versus other livestock farming practices. It’d kind of be like doing a survey on mid-sized cars, but only 10 of them, instead of 100 of them if there are 100 of them.

AHEARN: As the market grows a division is developing within the organic industry. Some producers say it’s time to start comparing their products with main stream food processors. Others, like the Cornucopia institute's Mark Kastel, fear the industry is lowering its standards for the sake of market competition. He wants the organic industry to get back to its original mission, which at its core, means informing consumers about what goes into their food, from the pasture to the grocery store shelf.

KASTEL: It is appears that the Organic Trade Association is more interested in protecting the market share of their major corporate members then protecting the integrity of the organic label.

AHEARN: For Living on Earth, I'm Ashley Ahearn.



USDA National Organic Program

List of accepted synthetics in organic food

Organic Trade Association

Organic Consumer's Association

The Cornucopia Institute


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