A loosening of the Organic Standards: Synthetic Substances

History of Organic Agriculture series- Part 8

Back in July 2012, the New York Times published an article entitled “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?” which joined a string of recent stories in pushing organic certification back into the media spotlight. The excitation aroused by “Oversized” stemmed from its questioning whether corporate interests are undermining organic integrity by rigging the certification standards to allow unwarranted and unwelcomed synthetic ingredients in organic processed food.

Some organic heavyweights including Michael Potter of Eden Foods were blunt in alleging such corruption and the article alarmed many consumers whose knowledge of certification draws more on faith than familiarity with federal regulations. Weren’t the organic standards originally written to prohibit certified foods from containing synthetic ingredients? And doesn’t the process for establishing and enforcing those standards deter agribusiness interference (along with government incompetence) by insuring the organic community a commanding voice in the outcome? The answer to both questions is yes and how we moved from those early intentions to the realities of today provides the next installment in our serial saga, “Organic Agriculture: Its Origins, and Evolution Over Time.”

We must travel back to the 1980s to appreciate why and how the anti-synthetic and anti-agribusiness provisions were written into the USDA organic certification standards. Private sector organic certification came into its own during that decade as more than a dozen for-profit, non-profit and state certification programs grew to commercial significance. Each of these programs maintained its own set of standards for production (fresh products) and handling (processed foods) and used a unique seal to identify items certified to those standards. Much as adolescents everywhere have difficulty explaining themselves, this multiplicity of meanings and symbols rendered organic certification quite perplexing to many potential consumers. Seeking to harmonize the meaning behind organic certification, the organic community – meaning the extended family of farmers, certifying agents, natural food merchants, environmentalists and consumers – reached general consensus that the benefits of a single standard and label under the aegis of the USDA outweighed the risks.

This history is covered in more detail in an earlier installment of this series (Genesis of the USDA’s National Organic Program) but there are two specific elements which are pertinent to our “Oversized” discussion. One, the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) – the ensuing legislation which authorized the USDA certification program – set a very high bar for allowing synthetic substances in organic production and expressly prohibited them in processed food. These strict provisions reflected the pristine orthodoxy with which the organic community embraced its mission and the relatively small-scale and simplistic production and handling systems that were operational at the time.

This was the era when cosmetically challenged organic fruits and vegetables were still salable and seven grain pancake mix constituted a certified convenience food. Whether back-to-the-landers or traditional farmers who declined to get on the chemical treadmill, the organic pioneers were all told that they wouldn’t survive without using synthetic substances and they prided themselves on proving that guidance wrong.

Additionally, the organic community recognized that partnering with USDA made them decidedly small fish in a very big pond and insisted that OFPA contain checks-and-balances provisions to guarantee that their voice be heard and respected. The most significant of these provisions was the creation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a fifteen member body appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to include a prescribed number of farmer (4), processor (2), consumer (3), environmentalist (3), certifying agent (1), scientist (1), and retailer (1) representatives.

These categories were loosely defined in the law but the NOSB was clearly chartered as an extension of the organic community and its champion inside USDA. Remarkably, OFPA authorized the NOSB to determine which synthetic substances could be allowed in organic production and which natural but non-agricultural substances (such as salt) could be added to organic processed foods. The Secretary of Agriculture retains final authority for determining which substances are allowed in organic production and handling but may only choose from among those favorably recommended by the NOSB. Can you think of another federal regulation that affords private citizens such extraordinary regulatory influence?

There is a caveat against generals fighting the previous war over again, and it could be argued that OFPA was written to certify the previous processed food category over again. By the time the NOSB ultimately convened in 1992 and started reviewing substances, a new generation of organic processed foods was emerging that were more fabricated and shelf-stable than the granola of the early days.

Many of the synthetic substances used in the newer processed products were recognizably innocuous – ascorbic acid, for example – but others such as mono- and diglycerides used as stabilizers crossed the legal line drawn in the OFPA. Keep in mind that the OFPA restriction applied to the eventual USDA standard and while the NOSB and the USDA deliberated during the 1990s the private certification programs remained free to green light the more novel processed food formulations made with ever more syllabic, chemical-like sounding ingredients. Allowing synthetics to slip into certified processed foods, along with the emergence of ever larger and more specialized organic farms, was part and parcel of organic agriculture moving from the food cooperatives and mom and pop natural food stores of the 1970s and 80s into the Whole Foods and Walmarts of the 1990s and today.

The organic community in general and the NOSB and USDA in particular were guilty of looking the looking the other way regarding the legal prohibition of allowing synthetic substances in certified processed foods. Beginning with its first recommendations in 1992, the NOSB simply ignored the law and started forwarding favorable recommendations for such substances to the Secretary. For its part, the USDA published draft regulations in 1997 and 2000 and the final standards later in 2000 with similar disregard for OFPA’s clear-cut prohibition.

Serving as the NOP crop and livestock specialist in 2000, I vividly recall the senior USDA official responsible for implementing OFPA acknowledge the legal prohibition on synthetic substances in processed foods, but declare that the final standards would sanction their use. There were more behind-the-curtains machinations involved in finalizing the federal organic standards (described in U.S. Adopts National Organic Standards: Victory For All, but…) at the time we never thought that allowing synthetics in processed foods would be the first to come back to bite the USDA…and hard!

In an impressive re-telling of the Emperor’s New Clothes fable, a Maine farmer, organic inspector and general contrarian named Arthur Harvey called the USDA’s bluff in 2002 by suing to overturn, among other controversial provisions in the standards, the allowance for synthetic substances in organic processed foods. In January 2005 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in Harvey’s favor on the allowed synthetic provision and stayed its finding while USDA worked to un-tangle the processing standards and another overturned provision involving dairies transitioning to organic production.

However, the big players in organic processing, which by 2005 included some of the largest agribusiness interests in the country, responded quickly and succeeded in attaching an amendment (less favorably referred to as a rider) on the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations bill that amended OFPA to restore the pre-Harvey conditions. This move, which reeked of special interest influence on Capitol Hill, stunned the grassroots members of the organic community who were pleased with the Harvey decision, even if they hadn’t been earlier champions of the cause.

It’s not difficult to draw the connections between this history and the allegations of corporate malfeasance, USDA duplicity and watered-down organic standards leveled in “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?” In the aftermath of the Harvey case, the NOSB approved additional synthetic ingredients for use in organic processed foods, such foods grew as a profit center for processors and retailers and the connection between organic farmers and consumers grew more distant.

Does this picture start to resemble the conventional food sector that organic certification was envisioned as supplanting? By contrast, advocates of this “mainstreaming organic” model contend that every acre converted to organic production is a positive achievement and that adding a handful of innocuous synthetic ingredients (how dangerous could ascorbic acid be? People take it as a supplement!) is a small price to pay for reaching millions of eager new consumers. What is indisputable is that the synthetic substances in processed foods controversy revealed an identity crisis within the organic community that shows little prospect of healing.

In our next installment of organic history, we’ll examine how dramatic changes in certified dairy production exacerbated tensions and ultimate broke the organic community along similar fault lines.

  1. Organic Agriculture: Its Origins, and Evolution Over Time
  2. Industrial Agriculture and the Organic Alternative: Rachel Carson’s Contribution
  3. The Organic Certification Process: Early Beginnings
  4. Genesis of the USDA’s National Organic Program
  5. The Organic Community, the USDA, and the Morning After
  6. U.S. Adopts National Organic Standards: Victory for All, but…
  7. The Waste Land: Organic Agriculture during the Bush Years
  8. A loosening of the Organic Standards: Synthetic Substances
  9. Organic Agriculture and Organic Certification: Not So Ying and Yang
  10. Organic Certification Standards for Poultry: An Insider’s Look
  11. The History of Organic Agriculture: Final Installment

Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While working for the USDA National Organic Program between 1999 and 2002 Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production.  He spent two more years with the USDA Marketing Services Branch working to develop and promote farmers markets.  Mark also worked for the NOP in 2010. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.

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