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What does ‘organic’ really mean?

What does “organic” really mean? According to USDA regulations, a product called “100 percent organic” must contain all organic ingredients. But even that simple rule is getting convoluted by those that regulate the industry. By ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum.

You know organic has gone mainstream when Wal-Mart starts selling it. In fact, organic products are the fastest growing segment of the agricultural market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says organic sales jumped 22 percent last year. A growing number of people are willing to pay a premium price to eat what they consider to be superior products and to support farming techniques that are better for the land.

But what does “organic” really mean? According to USDA regulations, a product called “100 percent organic” must contain all organic ingredients.  If the label just says “organic,” a processed food product can have up to 5 percent non-organic ingredients by weight — if those ingredients are on the USDA’s “national list” of approved non-organic ingredients.

Until last month, there were only five ingredients on the list: cornstarch, water-extracted gum, kelp, unbleached lecithin, and pectin. But the list just got longer and there’s quite a debate taking place as to whether this is good or bad for consumers.

What just happened?
On June 9th, the USDA added 38 non-organic ingredients to the national list: 19 food colorings, two starches, casings for sausages, hops, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin, celery powder, dill weed oil, frozen lemon grass, and a sweetener called fructooligosaccharides.

These 38 items, chosen from more than 600 requested by food manufacturers, can now be used as minor ingredients in 95 percent organic products if a company can prove to its certifier that an organic version is not available in the quality or quantity needed.

“There are a lot of organic farmers and a lot of organic producers who are very concerned about this,” says Phil Lempert, consumer reporter and the Supermarket Guru on NBC’s Today Show. “They worry that by adding these 38 ingredients it actually diminishes the importance and the credibility of a lot of the organic products that are out there.”

The debate is underway
The Organic Trade Association says the expanded list is actually a positive step for both the industry and consumers. “This is definitely a strengthening of the standards,” says Barbara Haumann, press secretary for the OTA.

How can that be? Until now, some organic certifiers allowed companies to use more than the five non-organic ingredients on the approved national list. Haumann says there might have been “hundreds or even thousands” of minor non-organic ingredients in products labeled organic. That news is sure to come as quite a surprise to a lot of shoppers.

Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, agrees that a strictly limited list of approved non-organic ingredients is a positive step. But he says three of the items — hops, fish oil, and sausage casings — “are outrageous” and should not be allowed in any product called organic.

He opposes the use of non-organic hops because they are essential to making beer. He worries that fish oil might be contaminated with potentially dangerous chemicals. And he’s totally opposed to sausage casings — intestines — from conventionally raised farm animals.

Clearly, the organics industry is at a crossroads. Big food companies are trying to capture a market that has been created over the last 25 years by dedicated small farmers and producers.

Critics say the expanded national list will make it easier for big corporations to sell organic products without going to all the trouble — and expense — of finding all organic ingredients.

The Organic Trade Association insists that will not happen. The OTA’s Haumann believes the expanded list will actually increase organic production as farmers respond to the demand for organic ingredients currently not available. Haumann told me that if any of those 38 ingredients become widely available, they will go off the list.

The 'Budweiser Exception'
Those who fear the entry of big companies into the organic marketplace often point the finger at Anheuser-Busch. In September of 2006, the nation’s largest brewer introduced two organic beers, Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Pale Ale. Both were made with 100 percent organic barley malt, but mostly non-organic hops.

Doug Muhelman, vice president of brewing operations at Anheuser-Busch, told me the company’s organic certifier said this was allowed because hops are less than 5 percent of the ingredients by weight.

“We figured that over time as demand grew, we would encourage farmers to bring more organic hops into the market,” he said.

Cummins of the Organic Consumers Organization blasts Anheuser-Busch for not making more of an effort to find organic ingredients. “Consumers are not going to pay a premium price for a substandard organic product,” he says.

“We never intended to deceive anyone or cheapen the product,” Muhelman says. “We were naïve when we went into this.”

But Anheuser-Busch now uses 100 percent organic hops, even though that will reduce the amount of organic beer they can brew this year.

The bottom line
The new national list won’t be final until the USDA considers public comments. Most, if not all, of the 38 items are likely to remain on the list.

Where does that leave the millions of consumers who pay top dollar for the organic alternative? Shoppers need to realize there are different degrees of organic. Only those labeled “100 percent organic” are completely free of non-organic ingredients.

If you believe in organics, you have a philosophical decision to make about what you should buy. Is a product made with 95 percent organic ingredients better than one that’s non-organic?

No matter which way you come down on this issue, there must be truth in labeling. We must be able to trust that we get what we are promised.

Do consumer advocates need to be vigilant to make sure the new rules are followed and enforced. Absolutely!

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