Hightower: Think Your Food's Organic? Think Again
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When it comes to a healthy diet, I am not a purist. Too late for that because I grew up eating such culinary concoctions as toasted sandwiches constructed of Spam, white bread and that oddly orange, oddly spongy cheeselike stuff known as Velveeta.
As an adult, I even have been irresponsible enough to serve as a taster, judge and promoter of Spam creations that were served at a now-defunct annual event held in my town of Austin, Texas. Called "Spamarama," the festival featured unspeakable and (often unswallowable) dishes made from the gelatinous, pink potted meat, including -- get ready to gag -- Spam ice cream.
So I am not quick to criticize every little diversion from 100 percent wholesomeness. For example, even though I've been an early and ardent advocate of organic production, I recognize that there are certain times when processors of organic foods (from beer to cheese) are unable to get essential ingredients that are produced organically. Thus, non-organic hops sometimes are allowed in organic beer. Indeed, the original law creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "certified organic" program recognizes such realities, allowing up to 5 percent of a certified product to consist of non-organic ingredients.
This exemption, however, was not intended to be a free-for-all loophole for dilution of the USDA's organic standard. Two strong caveats were attached to that 5 percent allowance. First, any non-organic substance has to be approved by the National Organic Standards Board. Second, the explicit intent of the law was for producers and processors to be in active pursuit of all organic ingredients, moving away from synthetic and non-organic substances as quickly as the real things could be found.
Enter from stage right: corporate agribusiness and Barbara Robinson. With the phenomenal growth in consumer demand for organic products, such giants as Kraft and Dean Foods have rushed to capture this multibillion-dollar market, except they don't want to play by the rules. Big Food found its enabler in Robinson, who was chosen to administer the organic program during the George W. Bush years.
Consulting regularly with the corporate powers, Robinson has brought synthetic after synthetic under the organic label. At the start of the certification program, 77 non-organic ingredients were on the allowable list, which was supposed to shrink as time passed. Today 245 ingredients are listed.
Likewise, the program was supposed to set uniform standards for how organic foods are produced. Yet 65 of the standards recommended by the board since 2002 simply have been ignored by the administrator. For example, the board proposed specific rules to ensure that organic dairy farmers provide "access to pasture" for their cows, but Robinson's team has refused to implement the proposal. Thus, a giant milk purveyor such as Dean Foods (Horizon dairy products) is allowed to sell "organic" milk from cows that are confined in factory conditions rather than allowed to graze in open pastures. By failing to set rules that apply to everyone, the USDA is permitting private, for-profit organic certification firms to create their own standards, which means corporate interests can shop around for the most lenient certifiers.
You might think that the USDA would see the organic labeling program as a way to earn consumer trust in the integrity of these products. But, no. Robinson told The Washington Post that the label's main purpose is to "grow the industry." A consultant to Kraft Foods eagerly added his amen to her loosey-goosey regulatory ethic. "We don't want to eliminate anyone who wants to be a part of the organic community," he explained.
What a neat idea! We can expand organic production simply by eliminating that bothersome "organic" adjective. Who knows; Spam might qualify for the label now.