2005-10-30 - Organic farmers are furious at a decision by lawmakers to open a loophole in national standards to allow wider use of synthetic ingredients in manufacturing food sold in supermarkets under the premium "organic" label.
The action by a House-Senate conference committee, which has been attached to next year's pending Agriculture Department spending bill, overturns a federal court decision this year that would have restricted synthetic additives that could be put into products carrying U.S.D.A. "organic" labels - the most stringently regulated label used in marketing organic foods.
The court also ruled that milk from dairy cattle cannot be marketed as "organic" if the cows are raised on genetically engineered food and given antibiotics before they are converted to organic production.
The industry's largest trade group said that if the court ruling stood, it would have reduced the number of premium products that could claim to be "organic" and forced producers to shift to the lesser standard of "made with organic ingredients."
Members of the organic food movement, who have spent more than a decade building what is today the fastest growing segment of the food industry - with almost $11 billion in sales in 2003 - predicted the congressional action would undermine public confidence in the integrity of organic food labels. Under current USDA guidelines, foods with the green "organic" label must be 100 percent natural and contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, vowed a national campaign against products containing synthetics marketed as "organic."
"While consumers don't get to vote in the halls of Congress, they do get to vote in the marketplace," said Urvashi Rangan, a policy analyst at the New York-based non-profit. She said Congress is giving in to big processors who want a piece of the organic market without meeting the stringent requirements originally intended for organic labels.
Rangan said the USDA also is being given wide discretion to give "emergency exemptions" to industry to use chemical synthetics in place of natural ingredients when the natural ingredients aren't readily available or are too expensive.
Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, which sought the congressional action, said it is intended only to maintain current industry practices for producing products marketed as "organic."
She said synthetics still will be limited under USDA regulations, and stringent reviews still will be conducted to ensure the organic label is appropriate.
She said the federal court ruling threatened to overturn a decade of work, public hearings and compromises that went into putting together a USDA policy on organic food that went into effect in October 2002. She said the House-Senate amendment also matches overseas organic standards.
"I don't agree with the characterization of what has been done here," she said. Although some in the organic movement charged OTA launched a "sneak attack" on the organic rule, DiMatteo said her organization has been open with its intentions to get Congress to overturn the court ruling.
The federal court decision came in a case brought by Arthur Harvey, a blueberry farmer from Hartford, Maine, and an inspector under the USDA's organic program. He contended the USDA was allowing manufacturers to put too many synthetic chemicals in products marketed as organic than originally permitted under government rules. In the case of jam, for example, he said manufacturers were using synthetic pectin to firm up the natural fruit when more expensive pectin from natural sources was readily available.
Harvey said there are more than 300 synthetic ingredients used in manufacturing organic foods today that never should have been permitted, and the industry has slipped into other bad habits, such as marketing organic food in plastic bags.
Steve Etka of the National Organic Coalition, which represents Northeast organic farmers, among others, said the impact of Harvey's suit has divided the organic movement and the action by Congress now threatens to force the Agriculture Department to reopen the organic rule to further alteration.
"This goes far beyond maintaining the status quo,'' Etka said. He predicted one impact of the congressional action will be to allow industry to use more of the cheaper synthetics in organic products, even when natural products are readily available.