Organic Food Myths Debunked


A follow-up to my post on the great salmonella-tainted-egg recall.

I’ve always been skeptical of organic foods. “What does ‘organic’ really mean?” I asked my friends who went ga-ga for thistle milk at farmers’ markets and bought labels like Kashi Go Lean. “No chemicals or synthetics,” they said. But was that really true?

Here’s the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) definition of “organic” as of 2007. But many companies who want to tap into the lucrative organic market no doubt hire lobbyists and creatively interpret their way around standards to get that “organic” sticker slapped onto their packages.

An excerpt from Wikipedia on organic certification:

Critics of formal certification also fear an erosion of organic standards. Provided with a legal framework within which to operate, lobbyists can push for amendments and exceptions favorable to large-scale production, resulting in “legally organic” products produced in ways similar to current conventional food.

Manipulation of certification regulations as a way to mislead or outright dupe the public is a very real concern. Some examples are creating exceptions (allowing non-organic inputs to be used without loss of certification status) and creative interpretation of standards to meet the letter, but not the intention, of particular rules…

In December 2005, the 2006 agricultural appropriations bill was passed with a rider allowing 38 synthetic ingredients to be used in organic foods. Among the ingredients are food colorings, starches, sausage and hot-dog casings, hops, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, and gelatin. This allowed Anheuser-Busch in 2007 to have its Wild Hop Lager certified organic “even though [it] uses hops grown with chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides.”

The truth is that “organic” does not mean no synthetics. The USDA allows the use of certain synthetics after Congress passed a 2006 appropriations bill (you can see a summary of it on Hard-core, earthy, stick-it-to-the-man organic food hippies were outraged, while big organic food companies celebrated. This bill allowed the use of 38 synthetic items without the loss of USDA organic certification. These items include:

  • celery powder
  • natural sausage casings
  • 18 colors extracts from annatto seeds, beets, carrots, etc
  • fructo-oligosaccharides
  • hops

My first reaction: these don’t sound very synthetic. They sound…organic, natural. What’s the fuss about? It turns out these items are produced by non-organic means, i.e. chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But still, it’s not like the list contains tongue-twisting compounds that sound like they’d give you cancer. So is the Seattle Times‘ headline for the article “’Organic’ food rule could have up to 38 loopholes” overreacting?

After reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma I learned about the legislative and social battles waged to define “organic” and the distinction between the organic food movement and the organic food industry. The organic food movement dates back to the early 20th century in response to industrial agriculture. The organic food industry manifests itself in large corporations like Whole Foods.

I’ll write more about this later. In the meantime, amuse yourself with the article “Can an Organic Twinkie Be Certified?” And here’s an interesting summary to Congress written by this National Organic Program organization. I wonder what they’re about.