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Nonorganic ingredients in foods labelled organics

The USDA is considering allowing 38 nonorganic ingredients in foods labelled organic. The public has 2 additional months to comment before the final decision is made. According to the Los Angeles Times, "A wide range of organic food could be affected, including cereal, sausage, bread, beer, pasta, candy and soup mixes."

For some information about the 38 ingredients, here is a link to a Los Angeles Times article:
http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi...

For information from the government about the proposed ingredients:
http://www.ams.usda.gov/news/133-07.htm

If the subject interests you, you can post your own comments at:
http://www.regulations.gov/

For instructions how to negotiate this procedure online (it is not made simple):
http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/publiccom...

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  1. technically, current rules and regulations state that for an organic product to be labeled as such it only has to be 95% organic. much of the products are already affected (old news). to be sure, you have to get 100% certified organic food from a reliable source. this is an unfortunate by-product of organics becoming so overwhelmingly popular

    or, if you really want to make a difference, buy sustainable, local goods. otherwise, good luck with the agricultural lobby....

    1. Okay, since I work in the organic industry, I generally try to stay out of these discussions. But, there's quite a bit of misinformation about this issue, and I thought I'd try to clarify some things.

      In the recent past (2002 to, really, June of this year), there were several interpretations about allowing non-organic agricultural ingredients in food labelled "Organic" (meaning at minimum 95% organic ingredients...and I'm not even getting into non-agricultural ingredients with this one, like yeast, or ascorbic acid). One common interpretation was that if the agricultural product was not commercially available in an organic form, it could be allowed in a non-organic form. A lawsuit brought by Arthur Harvey of Maine against the USDA put a stop to this. And thank goodness for that, because it has ensured that now, the ONLY non-organic agricultural products allowed in food labeled as "Organic" are items on the list. With the addition of these 38 items, it brings the total list to 43 items. Considering that in the past, if a company said "I can't find organic sugar" and certifiers allowed it, this is a BIG BIG step in the right direction, to try to ensure products that are labeled as Organic are as Organic as possible. And there are places where demand is outstripping supply for some ingredients. This spring, I inspected a small, local-focus beer brewer. They showed me their file of attempts to find organic hops in the form they need (the facility uses whole hop flowers instead of pelletized hops). These guys are very serious about following the rule correctly. They have gone to extensive lengths to find organic hops. They quite simply aren't able to find them in the form they need (flower, not pellets), and in the variety they need (different brews need different hop profiles). So, right now, they use conventionally grown hops. But they're still searching. And that's something the National Organic Program requires...the 43 things on the list are only allowed if the company using them can prove they've searched for a suitable organic ingredient, and were unable to do so. So, for now, these products are recommended for inclusion. From what I understand, as well, any item on this list, is required to be reviewed every five years to see if supply has caught up yet. If it has, then the item will be removed from the list. So, nothing is on there permanently (for agricultural ingredients). And, if you remove the ability to make a particular product, then you can't create the demand. In the case of the Beer Boys (that's what I call them at least, that's not their company name), if they couldn't make organic beer, using their formulation, then they wouldn't be able to pressure their suppliers for an organic form of hops, and help increase awareness of the need for organic hops. And if a hops grower learns of a market where he can obtain a premium for growing organically, and is able to do so, you can be pretty confident that hops growers will start transitioning to organic production. Also, keep in mind, that land has to be in transition for three years before a crop can be considered organic, so it does take a bit of time for agricultural products to catch up with the demand.

      With that said, this list of 38 items has, yes, caused considerable controversy in the organic industry as well. I could spend some time railing against certain ingredients listed. But, rather than subject you to that, I've simply registered my comment with the NOP, and hopefully that will be heard. And I strongly recommend you to do the same. If you feel strongly about certain potential additions to the National Organic Program, please do comment. That's the way the consumer has their voice heard. In the past, the voice of the general public HAS been heard, and HAS caused change. In the original draft of the rule, GMO's were not prohibited, irradiation was allowed, that sort of thing. The public outcry was so large, the whole proposal was scrapped, and they started over. More recently, there has been significant outcry regarding access to pasture for dairy cows. There are now several proposals being discussed to try to create a minimum requirement for pasture access. So, public pressure can make a difference.

      But, please, I do encourage you to do some research first. Contact an organic certifier or someone involved in the industry at a level that deals with the regulations on a regular basis and has contact with several sectors of the organic industry (from farms all the way to consumers). Ask them questions. Find out what really happens on a day-to-day basis in the organic foods industry. Educate yourself. Okay, I'll step down from my soapbox now, but if anyone has any further questions about this, please do post...I'll check from time to time, and see if I can answer any further questions.

      12 Replies
      1. re: OrganicGal

        Thanks for the informative post. I have been concerned that the organic label was becoming meaningless to the consumer, and that kimberlya's solution to buy local, sustainable foods is THE way to go.

        Your post holds out hope that the organic label may not be rendered useless, but in fact could be improving. On its face, adding 38 nonorganic ingredients does not sound like the way to improve, but you make a good case for this to provide incentive to fill the needed organic ingredients (over the next 5 years).

        I would be curious to have more specifics--your opposition to certain ingredients, and why, for instance. And any specific links to find sources to help the consumer become more educated. Many of us read quite a lot on the subject of our food supply and have felt betrayed by the USDA in the past.

        A quick google search yields a number of organic certifier sites. The Rodale site seemed a possible jumping off place:

        http://www.newfarm.org/ocdbt/

        My intention has been to make an educated comment to the NOP while the opportunity exists--I wrote to the LA Times columnist who wrote the article I linked suggesting it would be useful to have information how to comment to the NOP, as my search had resulted only in a phone number.

        Since Scott Wilson of the LA Times provided me with the information on how to comment online or by mail, I thought some on this board might be interested.

        1. re: Babette

          Babette, one of the best links is to the National Organic Standards Board website. The URL is http://www.ams.usda.gov/nosb/index.htm.

          The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is responsible for maintaining the National List of Allowed Materials. They review every input before it is allowed on the list. They advise the National Organic Program on issues beyone inputs. They recommend new standards (currently under evaluation, standards for personal body care products, aquaculture, and pet foods). The make up of the board is entirely stakeholders in the organic industry. Farmers, Food Processors, Environmentalists, Consumers, Certifers, retailers. These are the people the industry affects. Recommendations they have made are included on their website, meeting transcripts are posted, and all of the comments made by committee members (as well as public comments from any attendee) are posted. It really has very complete information. Rodale is also very good, and the farm manager of the Rodale Institute Farm is a member of the NOSB. For pratical farming information ATTRA is great (www.attra.org). They're a sustainable and organic ag. research organization and also have information for consumers. Finally, you can contact me. My organization's website is www.nccrop.com, and I'm the first inspector listed under Contacts/Staff. NC Crop Improvement is an organic certifier, and certifiers are also always good contacts for information on the organic rule. You can find all their URL's at the NOP's website under the list of accredited certifiers.

        2. re: OrganicGal

          All of that makes a lot of sense except this: the products aren't "organic" insofar as they're not 100% organic. We should have different labels or an interim label or a 95% organic label or something that more accurately describes the product the consumer is buying. No matter how much work the company has or hasn't done to find an organic version of the ingredient...the bottom line is that the consumer is still buying a product that uses conventional ingredients. I don't have a problem with the rules as such, I don't have a problem with having to use some conventional ingredients in an otherwise organic product, but I do think it should be labeled as such.

          I should also point out that I don't put a lot of stock in "organic" as a way to determine, all by itself, whether I want to buy something...and this rule is part of the reason why, it doesn't necessarily mean much of anything when it comes to the end product.

          Now, I might be more inclined to buy a product from a company actively trying to operate in a sustainable way and that is actively searching for better, more earth friendly ingredients...but it should tell me that on the label...not just tell me that the product is "organic" when its not.

          1. re: ccbweb

            I agree: instead of degrading the meaning of "organic" there should be a term equivalent to "transitional" as it's used for produce from land being transitioned to organic methods. Frankly, under the current misleading labeling, I'll believe this list of allowed non-organic ingredients will get shorter when I see it--my expectation is for more and more to be added.

            1. re: cmkdvs

              Good idea, cmkdvs & ccbweb. Maybe if enough people suggested this in the comments it would be enacted.

            2. re: ccbweb

              ccweb, I understand where you're coming from. But what about products that contain non-agricultural ingredients? Could they be labeled as "organic" according to your proposal? Because there are many products out there that are as organic as possible, but cannot be labeled as 100% organic. If a processing aid is not from agricultural sources, it CANNOT be organic, but it can be naturally derived and be allowed under the rule. Take maple syrup for example. You can say it's 100% pure organic maple syrup (in many cases), but you can't say it's 100% Organic maple syrup, because it's filtered with diatomaceous earth (DE). The DE can't be organic, because it's, well, crushed prehistoric seashell fossils (loosly put). But since it comes into contact with organic goods, the product can no longer be considered 100% organic. Decaf coffee, same situation. Processing aids that do not remain in the product after processing are non-ag, so it can't be 100%. Vitamin D milk (vitamin D added so that humans can digest the milk)? Again, it can't be anything but "organic" because it's not 100% organic. What about those sprouts you're eating? Single ingredient, because it's only sprouts, right? Therefore, it must be 100% organic, right? Nope. Most states require sprouting seeds to be soaked in a chlorine solution prior to sprouting to ensure the sprouts do not harbor salmonella. Chlorine is allowed, especially in this case because it is a state requirement in many places. And because the chlorine contacts the seed, it's no longer able to be labeled 100% organic.

              That 5% allowance covers anything that is in the product that comes into contact with organic product, whether it is from an agricultural source or not. And ANYTHING that comes into contact with products labeled "Organic" must be on the National List of Allowed Substances. This can be reviewed at the National Organic Program Website, www.ams.usda.gov/nop. Just click on the link for standards and then on National List Information. The sections you are looking for in processed food products is sections 205.605 and 205.606.

              As far as the rule not meaning anything, actually, we have a very strong rule depending on what the certifier allows in some of the more grey areas. Many certifiers are pretty stringent. I work for a certifier that just last night had a very long discussin regarding how to file a complaint with the NOP when one of our competetors makes a decision that we feel is quite questionable. The organic industry tends to be quite self policing...primarily because we want to make sure that folks that scream that organic means nothing are not correct. There are agencies out there that do still have strong integrity, and believe that organic should mean something. Generally speaking, the certifiers that have been involved in the organic industry longer than the NOP has been in place (CCOF, Oregon Tilth, International Certiifcation Services, Demeter, to name a few) have a long history of deep commitment to sustainable agriculture, and have upheld a narrow interpretation of the NOP to ensure integrity remains part of the system. At the NOP website (URL listed above), you can find a listing of all the certifiers. Call them. Ask what they allow and what they don't. Find ingredients listed on products that you question, and ask certifiers why those ingredients are allowed (especially if they are not listed as allowed in the rule). Ask how they interpret access to pasture for ruminants, or outdoor access for any other animal. And, learn the Rule. There are clearly defined labelling categories, and specific requirements for each. If you know the rule, you know what you're eating. Saying "I thought the definition of "organic" meant every last little bit was organic" is like saying, "well, officer, I thought the speed limit in North Carolina was 75 mph because that's what I think it means." Ignorance of the law is no defense.

              1. re: OrganicGal

                Thanks so much OrganicGal! Very wonderful and informative posts!

                1. re: OrganicGal

                  Ignorance of the law is no defense indeed. But, to call something "x" (in this case organic) is making an affirmative statement about that thing. Labeling something "organic" with no qualifications on the label is inaccurate if 100% of what is in it and what went into making it is not organic itself. That doesn't make those products bad, it doesn't make them dangerous, but they shouldn't, in my mind, be called "organic" when they are not 100% organic.

                  I appreciate the difficulties faced by producers of products and I think the rules make a lot of sense in many ways. I don't actually have any problems with any of the rules, really, except the end result of all of it which is that we end up calling things something that they are not. When we do that, we strip the actual meaning from a term and make it more difficult for people trying to make the choices they want to make about what they buy and consume.

                  My take on it all is really quite simple: label products accurately. Don't use words and terms in places where their definition is inaccurate.

                  Lastly, if something is labeled "organic"...well, I expect most people if asked would say that they thought that meant all of what was in that thing was indeed organic. Clearly, that's wrong. But its entirely reasonable to think that that's just what an organic label would mean. I don't see the speed limit analogy at all, because a speed limit isn't open to personal interpretation. Organic, apparently, now is.

                  1. re: OrganicGal

                    Just out of curiosity how do the JAP and EU standards compare to the NOP standards? Do they classify the same way (100% vs. 95%)? Do they have a list of 43 acceptable non-organic ingredients? Does the NOP mostly organic label still exist? Isn't swiss water processed decaf coffee organic?

                    1. re: cheapertrick

                      The JAS (that's what the Japanese rule is generally referred to as) and EU regulations (EEC 2092/91) are the same as far as using the word "Organic" (products containing at minimum 95% organic ingredients, and the only other ingredients are listed somehow as "allowed"). Additionally, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) and Codex Alimentarius (the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) also use the same 95% guideline. As far as the 43 specific allowed products under the National Organic Program, I can say this much...each of the regulations (NOP, JAS, IFOAM, Codex) all have lists of allowed materials for multi-ingredient products. The lists may not match exactly, and if an organic certifier is working with a client that will be shipping product internationally, they will look at all the lists. Some of the regulations state that if an agricultural ingredient cannot be sourced organically, a non-organic ingredient may be used in an amount such that no non-organic ingredients equal more than 5% of the total final formulation. In that regard, the NOP is actually stronger. The NOP ONLY allows those 43 ingredients rather than opening it up to anything that can't be sourced.

                      As far as Swiss Water Processed decaf coffee goes, this processing methodology is allowed under the NOP, however, it does use allowed, non-agricultural processing aids in the system. Therefore, it is allowed, can be labeled as "Organic" but it cannot be called "100% organic" due to the use of the processing aids.

                      I'm not sure what you mean by the "NOP mostly organic label". If you could clarify, I'll let you know!

                      1. re: OrganicGal

                        THank you for your response.

                        I seem to remember that products containing at least 75% or 78% organic materials could be labeled "mostly organic". Is this true?

                        1. re: cheapertrick

                          Products containing at least 70% organic ingredients may be labeled "Made with Organic...." under the National Organic program. This category has some specific restrictions with it as well. The Principle Display Panel (PDP) may only list three ingredients or ingredient categories (such as "spices"). The PDP may also list the percentage of organic ingredients. The ingredient list on the information panel must identify each ingredient that is organic. The UDSA Organic seal may NOT be used on the PDP or anywhere else in on the packaging.

                          With this labeling category (Made with Organic), the processor, may, however, use non-organic agricultural ingredients that are not on the list of 43 allowed items. There are some products that could potentially be labeled "Organic" because their total organic ingredients are over 95%, but they have some minor ingredients that are not available organically, so they cannot use that category. I'm thinking specifically of a couple of clients I've worked with that have products with wild harvested fruits or spices that are picked by the indigenous people of the Amazon. These ingredients simply aren't certified, because the people cannot afford the certification process. But the producer wants to use these ingredients because they feel that the products match their product, and that the harvesting methods are socially responsible. It's hand-picked by native peoples, and the income from selling product to the U.S. helps significantly in the local communities. Often, these products may be labeled something like 99% Organic on the PDP. But they can't simply say "Organic" because of the one ingredient.