How Much of Your Food Labeled as Organic Is Actually Organic?

December 22nd, 2011

The Atlantic
By Barry Estabrook

The USDA keeps a list of inorganic products that can legally go into foods labeled organic, but new board members could change things

When is “USDA Organic” not organic? More often than you probably realize. The USDA keeps a “National List” of inorganic products that can legally go into foods labeled as organic. The casings for those tasty USDA Organic sausages can come from conventionally raised animals that have been fed antibiotics. The hops in your favorite organic beer can be sprayed with all manner of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Strawberries can be labeled as organic even if they had their start in a conventional nursery.

According to USDA rules, if 95 percent of a product is made up of organic ingredients, it can be called organic. If it’s 70 percent organic, the label can read “made with organic ingredients.”

For the past several years, public interest groups such as the Cornucopia Institute have complained that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which has the power to determine what materials can — and cannot — be used in organic production, too often weakens regulations in the face of intense lobbying by corporations who are more interested in the higher profits conferred by the word “organic” than in strong and meaningful standards.

Clad in well-worn jeans, a denim vest over a salmon-colored turtleneck sweater, and a pair of scuffed work boots, Richardson snooped from one end of the bakery to the other.

Recently, five new members were nominated for five-year terms to the 15-member board. The Obama administration has had a schizophrenic relationship with agriculture, on one hand cozying up to the likes of Monsanto Co. by advocating for GM crops, and on the other hand winning plaudits from small farm and organic advocates for programs like Know Your Farmer Know your Food and the White House organic garden.

So I was interested to see what type of NOSB appointees were selected. Fortunately, for a firsthand look all I had to do was get in my car and drive 20 miles up the road to Shelburne Farms, where Jean Richardson, an organic inspector, was conducting the annual inspection of O Bread bakery one recent afternoon.

For the past 10 years, Richardson, whom I know personally, has worked primarily for the Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF) certifying organization, which is part of Northeastern Organic Farming Association-Vermont (NOFA-VT). That will change in January: As one of the new NOSB members, her decisions and suggestions will affect any American who grows, produces, processes, or buys organic products.

Clad in well-worn jeans, a denim vest over a salmon-colored turtleneck sweater, and a pair of scuffed work boots, Richardson, whose inspections do occasionally lead to a company or a farm losing its certification, snooped from one end of the bakery to the other, and from floor to ceiling, at times jolly, at times serious, getting down on her hands and knees to peer under counters, running her hands over cooling racks (“What do you clean these with?”), flipping over 50-pound sacks of flour, and peering into mixing machines. Regulations required her to document that every ingredient in the bread met organic standards, following a paper trail that led all the way back to the mill where it was processed and the field where it was grown. It also required her to ascertain that the bakery maintained adequate standards of cleanliness and that there was no chance that food would be contaminated by mice, moths, flies, or other pests.

O Bread’s co-owner, Carla Kevorkian, provided Richardson with a fat sheaf of certificates, invoices, and lot numbers proving that the ingredients she used met organic standards — all except for the raisins in her raisin bread. Kevorkian couldn’t find the invoice for the raisons. She had the box — clearly labeled organic — from which they had been scooped, but that wasn’t enough. Organic guidelines demanded a document with a lot number verifying that the specific raisins used in that batch of bread were organic.

“It must be at home,” Kevorkian said. “My husband’s coming in. I’ll have him bring the invoice.” Richardson smiled, showing her jolly side. “I like to find errors, Carla,” she said, then paused for a flawlessly timed beat, “It’s my raison d’être.”

In addition to being a hands-on organic inspector for the last decade, Richardson is a professor emerita of natural resources and environmental studies at the University of Vermont and an organic maple syrup producer.

“My experience in Vermont has been with small farms, and as an inspector, I work with grassroots producers,” she said, while Kevorkian telephoned her husband. “I want to be sure that the voice of the small growers and processors get heard at a national level. There are times when a regulatory template that works for a large farmer or processor simply cannot work on a small scale. We need regulations for both. And we need clear labels for the consumer to understand.”

Other newly appointed NOSB members include Harold Austin of Zirkle Fruit Co., a Washington state fruit tree grower; Carmela Beck of Driscoll’s, a California berry producer; Tracy Favre of Holistic Management International in New Mexico, a non-profit group that educates about how to manage land sustainably; and Andrea Sonnabend of the California Certified Organic Farmers.

After two and a half hours, Richardson’s inspection of O Bread was complete. Her report would go to VOF, which would make the decision on whether or not O Bread had any “non-compliances.” Richardson had little doubt that the bakery would pass muster. “This company does a good job. They leave themselves a lot of leeway,” she said.

Still, I’ll wager that next year when Richardson comes around, Kevorkian will have an invoice ready for her raisins.

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