With the "USDA Organic" seal stamped on its label, Anheuser-Busch calls its Wild Hop Lager "the perfect organic experience. " But many beer...
With the “USDA Organic” seal stamped on its label, Anheuser-Busch calls its Wild Hop Lager “the perfect organic experience.”
But many beer drinkers may not know Anheuser-Busch got the organic blessing from federal regulators even though Wild Hop Lager uses hops grown with chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides.
A deadline of midnight Friday to come up with a new list of nonorganic ingredients allowed in USDA-certified organic products passed without action from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), leaving uncertain whether some foods currently labeled “USDA organic” would continue to be produced.
The agency is considering a proposal to allow 38 nonorganic ingredients to be used in organic foods. Because of the broad uses of these ingredients — as spices, colorings, and flavorings for example — almost any type of manufactured organic food could be affected, including organic milk, cereal, sausages, bread and beer.
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Organic-food advocates have fought to block all or parts of the proposal, saying it would allow food makers to mislead consumers.
“This proposal is blatant catering to powerful industry players who want the benefits of labeling their products ‘USDA organic’ without doing the work to source organic materials,” said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association of Finland, Minn., a nonprofit group with 850,000 members.
USDA spokeswoman Joan Shaffer declined comment.
Food manufacturers said last week that they were hoping the agency would act by Friday to allow labeling of organic products to continue.
A federal judge had given the USDA until midnight Friday to name the nonorganic ingredients it would allow in organic foods, but the agency did not release a list.
“They probably don’t know what to do” Cummins said. “On the other hand, it’s hard to believe they’re going to make people change their labels, although that’s what they should do.”
Demand for organic food in the United States is booming, as consumers seek products that are more healthful and friendlier to the environment. Sales have more than doubled in the past five years, reaching $16.9 billion last year, according to the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass., which represents small and large food producers.
But with big companies entering what was formerly a mom-and-pop industry, new questions have been raised about what goes into organic food.
For food to be called organic, it must be grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Animals must be raised without antibiotics and growth hormones and given some access to the outdoors.
Many nonorganic ingredients, including hops, are already being used in organic products, thanks to a USDA interpretation of the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990. In 2005, a federal judge disagreed with how the USDA was applying the law and gave the agency two years to fix it.
Organic-food supporters had hoped the USDA would allow only a small number of substances but were dismayed last month when the agency released the proposed list of 38 ingredients.
“Adding 38 new ingredients is not just a concession by the USDA, it is a major blow to the organic movement in the U.S. because it would erode consumer confidence in organic standards,” said Carl Chamberlain, a research assistant with the Pesticide Education Project in Raleigh, N.C.
In addition to hops, the list includes 19 food colorings, two starches, sausage and hot-dog casings, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin and a variety of obscure ingredients (one, for instance, is a “bulking agent” and sweetener with the tongue-twisting name of fructooligosaccharides).
The proposed rule would allow up to 5 percent of a food product to be made with these ingredients and still get the “USDA Organic” seal. Even hops, though a major component of beer’s flavor, are less than 5 percent of the final product, because the beverage is mostly water.
Organic beer, though still a small portion of total beer sales, has been growing even faster than overall organic-food sales, reaching $19 million in 2005, a 40 percent increase over the previous year (2006 figures were not available).
In addition to hops, two other items on the USDA list have attracted particular attention: casings for sausages and hot dogs, and fish oil.
Casings are intestines from cows, pigs or sheep, and have been used for centuries to wrap meat into sausages and frankfurters.
While the casings are a tiny portion of the overall sausage, organic purists object to eating anything from animals raised on conventional farms, where animals may be housed in tight quarters and given antibiotics and growth hormones. Further, they note that the USDA’s food-safety division has identified cow intestines as a possible source of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.
Fish oil’s presence on the USDA list has drawn objections because it could carry high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants, said Jim Riddle, a former member of the National Organic Standards Board. But fish-oil producers said such contaminants can be screened out.
USDA doesn’t enforce
The USDA rules come with what appears to be an important consumer protection: Manufacturers can use nonorganic ingredients only if organic versions are not “commercially available.”
But food makers have found their way around this barrier, in part because the USDA doesn’t enforce the rule directly. Instead, it depends on its certifying agents, 96 licensed organizations in the United States and overseas, to decide what it means for a product to be unavailable in organic form.
Despite years of discussions, the USDA has yet to provide certifiers standardized guidelines for enforcing this rule.
“There is no effective mechanism for identifying a lack of organic ingredients,” complained executives of Pennsylvania Certified Organic, a nonprofit certifying agent, in a letter to the USDA. “It is a very challenging task to ‘prove a negative’ regarding the organic supply.”