by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organic-standards

May 1 2014

A Roundup (no pun intended) on organics

It’s been a busy couple of weeks on the organic front.

To put the events in context:Organics cost more.

  • Consumers spend about $30 billion on organics each year, and the numbers are rising.
  • Industrial food companies are cashing in on the market by buying up organic companies.
  • Big Organics want the rules to be as lenient as possible to all them to follow the letter of the organic standards without having to adhere to their spirit.
  • Organic production, which uses only approved pesticides and fertilizers, is an explicit critique of industrial food production methods.

The White House non-organic garden

I think this photo comes from Jerry Hagstrom who must have seen it on the day of the annual Easter egg roll.

New Picture (2)

 

Sam Kass denies that the White House garden is organic.  He told Hagstrom that “the sign was part of the Easter Egg Roll, not part of the kitchen garden…The planners of the Easter Egg Roll put up the sign…and he did not see it until he went down to the South Lawn during the event.”  The garden uses “organic practices.”

The “academic” attack on the integrity of organic certification

A report from something called Academic Reviews draws a conspiracy-theory picture of organic farmers:

Our review of the top 50 organic food marketers….reveals that anti-GMO and anti-pesticide advo­cacy groups promoting organic alternatives have combined annual budgets exceeding $2.5 billion annually and that organic industry funders are found among the major donors to these groups…These findings suggest a widespread organic and natural products industry pat­tern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices that have generated hundreds of billions in revenues.

Finally, the findings strongly suggest that this multi-decade public disinformation campaign has been conducted with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal in direct contradiction to U.S. government stated policy for use of said seal….As a result, the American taxpayer funded national organic pro­gram is playing an ongoing role in misleading consumers into spending billions of dollars in organic purchasing decisions based on false and misleading health, safety and quality claims.

Michele Simon points out that the report is the work of the two founders of the publication, which is supported by an impressive list of food and biotechnology industry supporters.

The authors  make no statement about conflicts-of-interest.

What Americans really think about organics

Consumer Reports has a new survey of the attitudes toward organics of 1,016 adults.  The survey found:

  • 84% buy organic food and 45% but them at least once a month.
  • 81% think organic means no toxic pesticides (there are exemptions for some for up to five years).
  • 91% think organic produce should not use pesticides.
  • 61% think no antibiotics are used (there’s an exemption for streptomycin on apples and pears).
  • 86% think antibiotics should not be used.
  • 92% want a federal organic standard for fish.
  • 84% think the use of artificial ingredients in organic products should be discontinued, if not reviewed, after 5 years.

The fight between Big and Small Organics over the organic standards

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is meeting in San Antonio this week.  Advocates for maintaining the highest possible standards for organic production are worried about the NOSB’s notice last September to eliminate the rule that synthetic materials approved for the organic production be reviewed every five years (see Federal Register).

Advocates for Small Organics worry that the NOSB’s actions will damage the credibility of the USDA organic seal.  Some members of Congress agree.

the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and March Against Monsanto San Antonio (MAMSA) staged protested the sunset of the 5-year rule at the meeting.

OCA says the NOSB made the change

Here’s a photo of the protest.  Things must have gotten hot and heavy.  The political director of the Organic Consumers Association was arrested.  The group issued this statement:

When the bureaucrats running the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) call in the police to remove the political director of the Organic Consumers Association for protesting an illegal policy change, and continue to ignore the expressed concerns, and block her from attending the public meeting today, it’s clear that we need a new balance of power between the organic community and the organic industry.

This is the price of success for organics.  Everyone wants to cash in.

Addition: Ellen Fried reminds me of this terrific graphic of who owns what in organics.

Sep 1 2013

“Natural” on food labels? Ain’t necessarily so…

It’s the first Sunday of the month and time for my monthly Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.  In this one, I deal with the annoying “natural” on food labels, a term that the FDA prefers not to define.

Q: I am doing legislative research on food policy for one of my state’s senators on the definition of “natural.” As things stand, it’s difficult for consumers to understand what “natural” means on food labels. How should the FDA define this term so it is accurate and not misleading?

A: I was traveling in New England when your question arrived, and it sent me right to the nearest Hannaford supermarket. Hannaford makes this research easy. Sections everywhere in the store are labeled “organic and natural.”

Organic is no problem. Certified organic products must be made with ingredients raised or grown without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, irradiation, sewage sludge or genetic modification.

But what are we to make of Honey BBQ All Natural Potato Chips containing 20 ingredients, among them monosodium glutamate, yellow food color, and undoubtedly genetically modified corn and soy, but “no hydrogenated fats and gluten free”? Or Healthy Natural Dog Food containing meat by-products and other such things but “no artificial preservatives, colors or fillers”?

The Food and Drug Administration is not much help. Its answer: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA … has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

If you have made it through all the not’s in this non-definition, you can begin to understand how the FDA can allow high-fructose corn syrup to be “natural.” Even though enzymes, synthetic or not, are required to convert cornstarch to this mixture of glucose and fructose, it does not contain artificial colors or flavors.

But the products I mentioned do. Yellow No. 5 is an artificial color. You must assume that the corn or soy in any “natural” product is genetically modified unless the label says GMO-free or Certified Organic. You may be someone who has a hard time considering GMO ingredients “natural.”

In the last decade, new products marketed with “natural” claims have proliferated, and it’s easy to understand why. Marketers love the term. “Natural” sells products, not the least because consumers consider it a synonym for healthful and, often, for organic. Anyone would rather buy “100 percent natural seltzer water” – “calorie-free, no sugar, no sodium, gluten-free” (things never found in water) – than plain seltzer.

While “natural” does not necessarily mean “healthy” or even “healthier,” it works splendidly as a marketing term and explains why many junk-food manufacturers are switching from expensive organic ingredients to those they can market as “natural.”

The FDA isn’t fixing this situation because, according to a statement in response to a petition by Center for Science in the Public Interest, it’s “not an enforcement priority.”

Manufacturers of highly processed foods could not be happier with this nondecision.

In the absence of regulation, enter litigation. In recent years, advocacy groups have filed dozens of lawsuits seeking to ban “natural” claims on foods containing ingredients that seem unnatural, especially those genetically modified. Judges tend to say it’s the FDA’s problem and are calling on the agency to define the term.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for meat and dairy products, has attempted to clarify what it means by “natural.” Its Food Safety and Inspection Service says meat and poultry can be labeled “natural” when they are minimally processed and have no artificial flavorings, colorings or preservatives. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service says “naturally raised” means the meat must come from animals produced with no hormone growth promoters, no antibiotics and no animal by-products.

How about all of the above? And if the public really can’t tell the difference between “natural” and “organic,” the closer the definition of “natural” is to that of “organic,” the less confused they will be.

Perhaps you could advise the senator to begin with the organic standards. And then toss in working definitions that exclude anything synthetic, artificial and more than minimally processed.

You should expect food industry lobbying against this idea to be fierce. But the public will be better served if the compromises in defining “natural” come at the end of the negotiations rather than at the beginning.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com

Feb 21 2012

Jim Prevor on Organics, Crop Yields and Food Politics

I don’t ordinarily reprint or comment on discussions of my work but Perishable Pundit Jim Prevor’s response to my recent post on organics is worth a read.  I reprint his piece with his permission.  Skip the flattering comments about my work and scroll right down to his discussion of the downside of the organic community’s deal with the USDA.   

Our piece, Organics, Crop Yields And Feeding The World, brought many letters and public comments, including an article from one of the most prominent food analysts writing today.

Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and the author of many food and food policy related books, is often perceived by many in the trade as an enemy of the food industry. We find her enormously thoughtful and willing to ask many questions that are sometimes uncomfortable for the trade to address. We don’t always come down on the same side as her, but we always find reading her to be a wise investment of our time.

She recently wrote a piece titled, The Endless Controversy Over Organics, which focused on our interview with Dr. Steve Savage. As usual, Professor Nestle was open to the evidence presented — in this case regarding the relative yield between conventional and organic production. In the end, though, she threw up her hands at the conflicting research:

What impresses me about research on organic productivity is that its interpretation can be predicted by who is doing the interpreting. I’ve seen, and review in my book,What to Eat,plenty of research demonstrating that organics are only slightly less productive than industrial agriculture and at much lower cost to soil and the environment.

We think this is where most people will end up. The problem is that it is relatively easy to do research that will show organic production to be competitive. This is because as long as organic has only a tiny share of production, producers have the option to grow organic in a location that is optimized for organic production.

The yields in these optimized locations can sometimes be competitive with those of conventional production. This has, though, almost no relationship to the question of whether if all production was converted to organic, would the yields be competitive.

Here at the Pundit, we are in touch with too many growers who have tried to grow organic to have many doubts. Most of these growers were very motivated, they tried to grow organic because they thought they could make money doing so. Yet the results are in… demand or not, East Coast organic apples will remain a rarity.

This issue is not a trivial one. Professor Nestle highlights that organic growing operates at “much lower cost to soil and the environment.” This is controversial. Organic growing utilizes all kinds of substances, and it is not easy to establish that utilizing, say, copper, is more beneficial for than environment than synthetic substances.

Even if true, however, the environmental benefit would depend crucially on the ability to use the same area of land to raise food. If we were compelled to, say, destroy the rain forest to increase acreage for food production, it would be very difficult to make the case that the net benefit of organic production was beneficial to the environment.

One area we find ourselves in sympathy with Professor Nestle is in her critique of the interactions between the organic community and the US government:

The USDA has long been an uncomfortable host forThe National Organic Program. This agency’s job is to support industrial agriculture, and organics are indeed small in comparison.

But organic production is anexplicitcritique of industrial agricultural systems. Organics get higher prices. And their sales are increasing.

No wonder USDA and representatives of industrial systems don’t like organics much and do everything they can to find fault with it.

Sure there are faults to find:

  • Weak and inadequately enforced standards
  • Endless pressure to add industrial chemicals to the approved list and further weaken the standards
  • Expenses that few small farmers can afford
  • Inadequate protection from contamination with genetically modified crops
  • Suspicions about the equivalency of standards for imported organic foods
  • Bad apples who make things difficult for farmers who are doing things right

USDA ought to be doing all it can to work with organic producers to fix these problems. To its credit, USDA recruited undersecretary Kathleen Merrigan to try.

We think most at USDA would dispute her characterization of the agency, saying instead that its responsibility is to promote US agriculture, and since 99% of that agriculture is not organic, it should mostly promote the agriculture we actually have, rather than the agriculture organic advocates might wish we had.

That doesn’t mean that USDA doesn’t want to help organic farmers. As Professor Nestle notes, there is now an “agreement between the U.S. and the E.U. to recognize each other’s organic standards, thereby opening the European market to American organics. USDA reports that the organic industry is delighted with the opportunity for new market possibilities.”

Although Professor Nestle sees a problem in USDA hosting the program, we would say the organic community made a deal they will find difficult to live with in asking the government — any agency of the government — to manage this effort.

Obviously, organic advocates could have gone out and registered a trademark and could have kept organic standards pure and enforcement rigorous.

The minute the government is involved, though, politics is involved. And in politics, the organic community faces a difficult state of affairs. As long as organic is a tiny and insignificant industry, it could probably make its own rules without much interference. After all, who would care enough to fight?

Yet as organic grows, it becomes a more significant business opportunity and then General Mills, Kraft, etc., become more interested. As they become more interested, they also will look to see that the rules established meet their needs.

Now, obviously, there is no upside for them in tarnishing the organic “brand” — after all they want to profit from the brand. Still, over time, if organic becomes a substantial part of the food business, since organic growers are not the most powerful political force in the food industry, we will see the standards and enforcement change in a way that will benefit larger, more politically powerful companies.

This is not a function of USDA misbehaving. It is a function of tying one’s hopes to political forces. Of course, we don’t have to lecture to Professor Nestle on that subject… she is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales totaled nearly $27 billion in 2010, and constituted 11% of produce sales. Is this “tiny and insignificant”? I don’t think so.

Is the National Organic Program really a pact with the devil?  Organic producers worked long and hard—fully 12 years—to get organic standards codified in 2002.  Was this a mistake?

Mar 5 2011

Update on organics

On March 02, USDA announced that it was revoking its accreditation of two certifying agencies, Certified Organic, Inc. (COI) and Guaranteed Organic Certification Agency (GOCA).

USDA says COI failed to

  • Communicate with hired inspectors about proper procedures or ensure they were adequately trained
  • Adhere to internal procedures according to their operational manual
  • Keep confidentiality agreements on file for all employees with knowledge about certification applicants or operations
  • Indicate on certificates the effective dates for organic certification,
  • Ensure adequate training for employees about the regulations
  • Provide clients with cost estimates including inspection fees
  • Clearly identify the company’s responsibility to pay for any required pre- or postharvest testing
  • Verify organic system plans against the actual practices of their certified operations

GOCA’s problems had to do with “persistent noncompliance,” including such things as “failure to require clients to use defined boundaries and border zones as required by the organic standards.”  This mayall  sound absurdly bureaucratic but it means the certifiers could be overlooking producers’ violations of organic standards.

You can track down the records of such things on the USDA’s website, and see the handful of other such enforcement actions at the National Organic Program’s site.

I’d say this is progress.  Organic producers are supposed to follow the rules of the National Organic Program, and to be inspected to make sure they do.  If the inspectors aren’t doing their job diligently, you won’t be able to tell whether the organic foods you buy are worth the premium prices.

This is a key point of a recent FoodNavigator story on the market for organics.  The U.S. industry is expected to go from $21.1 billion in 2010 to $36.8 billion in 2015.   How come?  Because of “the government’s monetary and regulatory support and increasing acceptance of organic food in the country.”

People will pay more for organics if they think the producer is credible.  Organics are about credibility.  That is why the USDA needs to fiercely enforce organic certification.   Doing so protects the industry.  The more of this sort of thing, the better.

Jun 14 2010

USDA fires certifier of Chinese organics: conflicts of interest

In a move that should bring cheer to anyone who cares about the integrity of organic certification, the USDA has banned the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) from certifying foods from China as organic.  According to the accounts in today’s New York Times and the USDA’s enforcement announcement, OCIA used employees of a Chinese government agency to inspect state-controlled farms and food processing facilities.

Oops.  This is sending the fox out to guard the chickens (organic, hopefully).  The Chinese government has a vested interest in selling certified organic foods and can only be expected to be lenient in enforcing rules for organic production.

Honest, reliable, consistent inspection is the cornerstone of consumer trust in organics.  If producers aren’t following the rules to the letter (and, we wish, the spirit), why would anyone be willing to pay higher prices for organics?  Since it’s impossible to prove that organics are more nutritious than conventional foods, the entire system rests on trust.  And the value of trust rests with the inspectors.

Advocates of organics have been worried for ages about the credibility of organic foods from China and whether cheap organics produced according to high standards.  Now we know, and the answer is not pretty.  With respect to OCIA’s arrangement with Chinese government inspector, the New York Times explains:

The department objected to the arrangement after a 2007 audit, saying the partnership violated a rule barring certifiers from reviewing operations in which they held a commercial interest.  The department moved to revoke the association’s accreditation and the group filed an appeal. The department’s disciplinary process is conducted in secret, and negotiations often drag on. In O.C.I.A.’s case, it took nearly three years to resolve.

This cozy arrangement has been going on for at least the last three years?

It’s good that USDA is taking this on now.

But USDA really needs to take a hard look at conflicts of interest in organic certification, domestic as well as foreign.  Some USDA-authorized certifying agencies are much more lenient than others.  Witness: certification of fish and pet food as organic, despite the lack of final rules for such certification.  Some certifying agencies manage to find ways to do this; others refuse.

The organic industry ought to be pushing USDA as hard as it can to establish and enforce the highest possible standards for organic certification.  I’m looking forward to reading what the Organic Trade Association—and OCIA—have to say about all this.

Dec 29 2008

Are organics a scam? This week’s Q and A for Eating Liberally

This week, EatingLiberally.org wants to know whether I think organics are honest.  Do organic food producers really follow the USDA’s Organic Standards?  I think most do, but the question comes out of an incident in California where a fertilizer seller was passing off an unapproved chemical fertilizer as organic. Apparently, state agriculture officials knew about this but didn’t bother to tell anyone or do much about it.  Not a good situation.   Here’s my response to all this.

Oct 24 2008

USDA proposes new pasture rules for organic ruminants

Under the current rules, meat sold as organic must come from animals with access to pasture.  Loophole alert!  The animals did not have to be raised on pasture.  The USDA now proposes to close the loophole as it applies to ruminant animals. This proposal is open for comment.  If you want to see how such things are done, this one is an excellent example (it includes a detailed history of the regulations, among other useful things).  USDA wrote this in response to more than 80,000 comments on the “announcement of proposed rulemaking.”  Virtually all of these wanted organically raised ruminants to be grazing on pasture.  The Federal Register notice is 24 pages of tiny type but my immediate take is that the USDA proposals are really good.  Take a look and see what you think.  I’m withholding final judgment until somebody does a decent summary so I don’t get bogged down in “We propose to remove the word “or” at the end of paragraph X and replacing the period at the end of paragraph Y with a semicolon.”

Jun 18 2007

Organic Standards: Integrity

Today’s question, from a college professor in California, has to do with maintaining the integrity of the standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program for defining foods as organic: “It seems to me that the non-organic food industry must love this chipping away at the underlying meaning of “organic”. I’m worried about whether these changes are going to negatively affect the future availability of organic foods in grocery stores — why would people want to pay the premium for organic if it’s not really? My question is: have you written on this topic? Are others who you can refer me to?

Here’s my response: I have indeed written about this topic, and it is an important one. In What to Eat, I discuss the chipping-away-at-organic issues in several places, most specifically in the section on “The Politics of Organics” on pages 42-44 (and see Endnotes for references). Organics are the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Because organic production methods constitute an explicit critique of methods used in conventional industrial agriculture, the producers of conventional foods–along with their friends in the USDA and Congress–would love to weaken the standards to make it cheaper for them to produce and market foods as organic.

The latest USDA proposal (Federal Register, May 15, 2007) is to allow non-organic substitutes to be used in foods certified as organic when organic substances are not available. For example, the USDA wants to allow non-organic beet juice to be used to color products certified as organic when organic beet juice color is not available. Is this a good idea? I doubt it.

Anyone concerned about this issue should be working hard to make sure the organic standards continue to mean that organic foods are really organic and the Certified Organic seal can be trusted. This means expressing your opinion to your congressional representatives, to the USDA, and to the National Organic Standards Board. The Organic Consumers Association is an excellent source of information about this issue and provides plenty of background information for taking action.