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New Ingredients for Organics May Lead to Increased Sales - or to More Confusion

New Ingredients for Organics May Lead to Increased Sales - or to More Confusion

Shoppers and Trends

June 28, 2007

New Ingredients for Organics May Lead to Increased Sales - or to More Confusion

When we buy something labeled "organic," we assume it has been grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and raised without growth hormones and antibodies. Sometimes, we even expect organic meats to come from animals that have been given room to roam outdoors. But did you know that as of last week, the government gave a preliminary go ahead to 38 new ingredients (non-organic) to be allowed in foods carrying the “UDSA Organic” seal?

According to federal law, a product need only contain 95% organic ingredients in order to wear the organic label. The other five percent can be made of ingredients which have been designated as acceptable for use in organically labeled products. These ingredients, which have been placed on the USDA National List, previously included corn starch, water-extracted gum, kelp, unbleached lecithin, and pectin.

Now, in addition to these five, 38 more non-organic ingredients have been approved for use. Organic food manufacturers pushed for this decision because they say that these additional ingredients are difficult to find in organic form.  A potential loophole in federal law also states that if a sufficient quantity of an ingredient is not commercially available in an organic state, then it can be placed on the list for usable ingredients.


The list of ingredients approved last week includes 19 food colorings, two starches, hops, sausage casings, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin, celery powder, dillweed oil, frozen lemongrass, wakame seaweed, Turkish bay leaves, and whey protein concentrate.


Supporters of the ruling, like the Organic Trade Association (OTA), believe this change will encourage organic farming and the development of more organic products in an expanding organic marketplace. A recent OTA manufacturer survey shows organic sales growing at an average rate of 19% per year since 1997, nearly tripling in sales. By comparison, total U.S. food sales in the same time period grew between 2 to 4 percent per year.


Meanwhile, consumer advocate groups are unhappy with the decision. They think the ruling has more to do with enhancing the business of organics than in encouraging organic practices.


“This is a tremendous disappointment to the organic community, and it further discredits the USDA Organic label in the eyes of the consumer,” says Ronnie Cummins, National Director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). “The USDA continues to stack the board with people who are coming out of agribusiness, and they are not doing their homework. Allowing something like often highly contaminated fish meal to be a part of an organic product is outrageous.”


The USDA has extended the public comment period to 60 days from the original seven – likely because they made the decision despite the fact that in the weeks leading up to the ruling, the agency was bombarded with thousands of complaints. The interim final rule became effective June 21, 2007.


Confused consumers should know that this decision does not affect products labeled as 100% organic – it only applies to products that are 95% organic or less. Cummins says that ethical companies that don’t want to make short cuts may opt to go the 100% organic route. He also says that if USDA Organics continues to make these types of decisions, the organic industry may have to consider the creation of a new label to connote “real” organics.


“This is not the end of the world,” he says, “but it will be hard to convince food makers to source ingredients organically if you can get away with sourcing non-organic ingredients at a cheaper price – even if they want to do the right thing.”


Tell the USDA what you think about the ruling. Submit your comments Search for docket number AMS-TM-07-0062.