What USDA 'organic' food is...and what it isn't


When you look at the green-and-white USDA organic label attached to an apple or a box of cookies, what do you think it means? No toxic or artificial pesticides used to produce the food? No antibiotics used to make it?

That is what the majority of us think, according to a new Consumer Reports survey, but it's not exactly what we get, at least it's not exactly what U.S. shoppers get.

If the product labels says "100% Organic" than all the ingredients must be organic. If, on the other hand, the product says "Certified Organic" or has the familiar USDA organic label, than only 95% of the ingredients must be organic.

The other 5% of the product ingredients need to come from an approved list of additives and ingredients. That 'approved list' (and also, the 'not approved' list) is something that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has traditionally been in charge of since 1990. Things like carrageenan (a thickening agent extracted from seaweed) and xanthum gum (also a thickener) are on the approved list.

Here's a catch, though. While the law does prohibit synthetic pesticides and antibiotics from organic foods production, certain substances have been able to get an exemption from that prohibition, for up to five years. A good example of this are streptomycin and tetracycline, two antibiotics used on apples and pears for the last few years to stop a bacterial disease called fire blight. After getting thousands of comments from consumers, the NOSB recently told growers they would have to stop spraying with tetracycline after October 14 of 2014.

In the last year however, the USDA - not the NOSB - altered the review process and the five-year rule for exemptions. Under the new policy, an exempt material could be permitted to stay indefinitely on the approved list unless a two-thirds majority of the NOSB voted to remove that substance from the list.

The new policy lets the USDA re-list exemptions - for example, it could do that for the other apple and pear antibiotic streptomycin - without the recommendation of the NOSB and also not under view or review of the public.

Critics like Cornucopia Institute says the USDA is attempting a 'power grab' in the interest of big business and in order to expand the exemptions list.

"Corporate interests, including the industry lobby group the Organic Trade Association, have been gaming the system for years with the help of the USDA,” alleges Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia Institute co-director. “What has changed recently, as a result of the NOSB refusing to go along with agribusiness in approving gimmicky synthetics and nutraceuticals in organic food, is that they have now had their minions at the USDA change the rules in the middle of the game.”

At an industry meeting in San Antonio of the NOSB and the USDA National Organics Program, these issues continue to be hotly debated through today, May 2 - to follow the rest of the meeting highlights use hastag #NOSB.

What USDA 'organic' food is...and what it isn't
A new Consumer Reports survey says that 84% of us buy organic foods sometimes, and nearly half of us (45%) buy organic once a month or more. But guess what? Many of us don't know what we're getting.

Related Content on Treehugger.com