Good news is everywhere, if you know how to look. And I was on such a hunt for good news, I swear. Until I ran into a news alert published yesterday by the Cornucopia Institute, that I knew I could not overlook. The famous American food industry watchdog said it was “dumbfounded” by the government’s “failure to enforce organic law.”
Get this: the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in a compliance letter published last week that it will allow products containing unapproved synthetic additives to be labeled “organic” for an indefinite grace period. Such products (you’ll find a list at the end of this post) include organically certified infant formula and milk tainted with Martek Biosciences Corporation’s omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (DHA/ARA) that are derived chemically from fermented algae and fungus.
Never mind that incorporating unapproved synthetic additives to organically certified foods is illegal. Industry observers had long speculated that the USDA has been dragging its feet on forcing the removal of these unapproved additives in order to allow time for the powerful pharmaceutical companies manufacturing infant formula (Abbott Laboratories and PBM Nutritionals, the private-label manufacturer for Wal-Mart and Hain-Celestial’s Earth’s Best brand) and the nation’s largest milk bottler (Dean Foods) to petition the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the expert citizen’s body created by Congress, to approve the Martek materials, after the fact.
That’s no conspiracy theory. On March 14, NOSB released a committee proposal that would allow any synthetic nutrient additive that comes on the market to be added freely to organic foods–without review. This proposal will be debated and voted on by the full Board during its next meeting in Seattle, April 26-29.
Cornucopia is all the more concerned about this state of affair that synthetic additives have been linked to many serious reported gastrointestinal problems in infants and young children. The Institute is likely to file a lawsuit against the USDA for its failure to carry out its congressionally-mandated duties in protecting the purity and safety of organic food. Consumers are also invited to contribute their comments by the deadline of April 10.
Update: Kudos to Elizabeth Bowman, of Des Plaines, IL, for starting this petition.
Sign it and share it widely!
Since it was launched in 2002, the National Organic Program (NOP) that oversees the certification process has always been subject to controversy. Many players in the organic movement, from farmers to consumer groups, have been stressing that the regulation and its enforcement are not stringent enough, leaving ample wiggle room to the food industry. Furthermore, they could never fully shake off the suspicion that this USDA-orchestrated program would always do the bidding of the corporations, somewhat. Sadly, their doubts were confirmed by the USDA’s latest decision to turn the blatant disregard for the organic regulation into a de facto Federal policy.
“Federal law clearly states that synthetic additives must be approved by the USDA, through a formal petition process, assuring their safety before they can legally be added to foods with the organic label,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. “Martek’s Crypthecodinium cohnii and Schizochytrium oils (sources of DHA) and Mortierella alpina oil (a source of ARA) have never been approved, and the USDA has once again caved to industry lobbyists.”
So much for the hope kindled last summer by this USDA memo declaring its commitment to put an end to the “organic corruption” fostered under the Bush Administration, including the cultivated laissez-faire around illegal synthetic additives in organic foods.
The problem is not recent. The USDA first became aware of it in 2006, when its enforcement officials actually put the guilty manufacturers on the hot seat. The situation was quietly defused under the guidance of some corporate lobbyists, courtesy of Dr. Barbara Robinson, then director of the USDA’s National Organic Program. By now, the USDA has become so emboldened as to be overt about its position.
Where does that leave us, the consumers? In a place of confusion and distrust. Controversial as it may be, the USDA “100 percent organic” label has been offering us the guarantee that the food we buy is devoid of questionable substances and GMOs. Unfortunately, the farce does not stop at the shocking case of illegal synthetics. An investigation by the Cornucopia Institute revealed recently that some processed foods that are labeled as organic have undergone such manufacturing changes that they do not qualify as organic anymore. Yet those changes are not reported by distributors nor retailers for months on end, due to “communication glitches”…
“Many stores still listed organic oats as a main ingredient on the labels for Golden Temple’s bulk granola and incorrectly identified Peace Cereal as organic in store signage,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, last month. Prices were similarly unchanged.
Back in 2009, Dean Foods, the Dallas owner of Silk brand soy milk, stopped making many of its products from organic soybeans and removed the organic label from its cartons. But Dean didn’t change the bar code or the package design, leading many grocers and shoppers to ignore the shift for a long while.
“Somebody is making a lot of extra money… and it’s not the farmers,” stressed Mark Kastel. Meanwhile, trust in the organic label is getting significantly eroded. Many shoppers may even come to assume that it does not carry more weight than “natural,” a loose term whose significance is not regulated by any third-party.
Where to turn? To the resourcefulness of the citizens that we are, in this food democracy that we’re trying to build: contribute your comments to NOSB by April 10; share what you know with your community; dissect packaging literature and ingredients’ lists like they’re harboring the secret code to Eternal Life; last but not least, favor fresh, whole foods before reaching for anything processed and packaged.
Beware of the following products:
For children and adults:
- Wegman’s Organic Yogurt (Fruit on the Bottom Super Yogurt)
- Horizon Organic Milk
- Stremicks Heritage Foods Organic Milk
- ZenSoy Soy on the Go
Baby Food (select products contain Martek’s DHA):
- Happy Bellies
- Tasty Baby Organic Infant Cereal
Infant Formula (all organic infant formula products contain Martek’s DHA, with the exception of Baby’s Only Organic Toddler Formula):
- Bright Beginnings Organic
- Earth’s Best Organic
- Parent’s Choice Organic
- Similac Organic
- Vermont Organics