Has the 'Organic' Label Become the Biggest Greenwashing Campaign in the US?

organic greenwashing photo

Photos via Critical Bench, and the Guardian

We're well aware that more and more products are apt to be labeled with false green claims to try to grab the attention of increasingly green consumers--and 98% percent of them were guilty of exactly that last year. Now consider the federal, USDA regulated 'organic' label that many shoppers have come to know and trust. That now-ubiquitous label has become perhaps the most recognizable standard bearer for the green food movement--it couldn't be one of the biggest cases of greenwashing in the US. Could it?Can We Trust 'Organic'?
The integrity of the 'organic' label has recently come under fire from members of Congress and consumer groups, according to an extensive report in the Washington Post (whose own integrity has coincidentally come under fire recently). Some charge that the federal standards have grown too lax, and foods and products that carry the organic label don't deserve to.

Consider this example:

Three years ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture employees determined that synthetic additives in organic baby formula violated federal standards and should be banned from a product carrying the federal organic label. Today the same additives, purported to boost brainpower and vision, can be found in 90 percent of organic baby formula.
By just about any standard, a food made with synthetic ingredients wouldn't be considered truly organic--smell like greenwashing to anyone else?

The Organic Label and Lobbyists
The WP reports that the change occurred after lobbyists managed to convince a USDA program manager to flub the rules. Which brings us to the root of the problem--market share. Organic foods have become a huge, profitable industry (to the tune of $23 billion a year and growing fast). Giant food companies like Kellogg, Kraft Foods, and Coca-Cola now own huge stakes in the organic food market--and with their presence comes the power to lobby. The corporations have reportedly set out to do what they do best: make more money. And they're doing it by continually lobbying the USDA to get more of their foods slapped with the organic label. Observe:

Under the original organics law, 5 percent of a USDA-certified organic product can consist of non-organic substances, provided they are approved by the National Organic Standards Board. That list has grown from 77 to 245 substances since it was created in 2002. Companies must appeal to the board every five years to keep a substance on the list, explaining why an organic alternative has not been found. The goal was to shrink the list over time, but only one item has been removed so far.

organic food greenwashing photo

Other shifts include the USDA issuing a directive saying that farmers could use pesticides on organic crops if "after a reasonable effort" they determined it didn't contain any chemicals restricted by the organic labeling rule. Sounds pretty vague and open to loopholes if you ask me.

Is That Really Organic?
So far, some of the concessions made have impacted the following foods:

Grated organic cheese, for example, contains wood starch to prevent clumping. Organic beer can be made from non-organic hops. Organic mock duck contains a synthetic ingredient that gives it an authentic, stringy texture
It appears, if the WP report is accurate, that corporate lobbies are persistently hacking away at everything that makes organic 'green'. And much of the damage was done as far back as three or four years ago--which means, depending on your perspective, that we might have been buying greenwashed goods for years now.

Beginning the Great Organic Greenwashing Debate
So is calling a baby formula made with synthetic additives 'organic' actually accurate? Are 'organic' beers made with non-organic hops really what their labeling claims them to be? And on to the big question:

Are we falling victim to arguably the most wide-ranging greenwashing campaigns from one of the most trusted consumer advisory labels out there?

You tell me.

More on Organic Foods:
There's No Such Thing as Local vs. Organic Food
TreeHugger Picks: Organic Food is Better
Green Eyes On: Obesity and Organics : TreeHugger

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