If You Think 'Organic' Food is 'Organic', Think Again

The HWN Team | Heads or Tails
If You Think 'Organic' Food is 'Organic', Think Again

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The organic food industry has outgrown the original regulations meant to protect it and its consumers. How 'organic is organic food' is even more important now than in the past

The last decade has witnessed an increased interest in things 'organic' as more and more consumers seek out products that are healthy, ethical, and environmentally friendly. Nowhere is this more evident than in the food industry. In fact, the organic food industry has gone from a cottage industry start up to a multi-billion dollar business in less than a decade. This is especially true in developed countries of North America and Europe where consumers can afford to choose.

Global sales of organic food were estimated to be $40 billion in 2006 with the world organic market growing rapidly by about 20% annually since its infancy in the early 1990s. In the U.S, organic food products are the fastest growing sector of the food marketplace, up to 17 to 20% annually, whereas non-organic food sales only increased by 2 to 3% a year. Organic products accounted for 2.6% of total food sales in 2005.

Because of the rapid growth of the organic food industry, it is no surprise that big food companies and retailers have joined the act. The organic industry has become corporate. 73% of conventional supermarkets now have their own line of organic food products. Most of these products are milk, cheese, yogurt, fruit and vegetables. Unlikely organic products are sprouting up everywhere including organic cheetos and organic McDonalds coffee.1

The Cornucopia Instituteshows how small organic food producers are actually connected with major corporations:

  • Hershey Foods owns Dagoba
  • Cadbury owns Green and Black's
  • Kraft owns Boca Foods and Back to Nature
  • Heinz is a big investor in Hain Celestial which is connected to many small organic companies including Earth's Best, Spectrum Organics, and Frutti di Bosco
  • Nestle has invested in Tribe Mediterranean Foods
  • Coca-Cola invested in Odwalla
  • Pepsi acquired Naked Juice in November 2006
  • Kellogg acquired naked Bear, Kashi and Morningstar Farms/Natural Touch

So, who regulates this burgeoning worldwide industry?

Every country has its own regulations in labeling organic products. In the U.S. the Organic Foods Production Act was passed in 1990 giving a mandate to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish national standards for organic labeling and in 2002, the USDA set up the National Organic Program (NOP) which is the federal regulatory framework regulating organic food products. The USDA regulations cover issues such as genetic modification, radiation, bioengineering, pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, and other man-made chemicals but they do not cover some environmental as well as the ethical and social issues.2,3

In order for products and businesses to be certified organic, food producers need to meet the NOP requirements. This covers all processes involved from production to processing, packaging and transport.  The products that fall under NOP jurisdiction are fresh and processed agricultural food products, including dairy products, meat and livestock and food crops. It covers food products only and does not include non-food organic crops such as cotton and plants for cosmetics and personal care products.

The NOP is a small understaffed subagency of the USDA. Considering the size of the U.S., the NOP cannot undertake inspection of food producers to verify organic claims. Thus, the NOP works together with local certification agencies, accredited by the USDA. There are currently about 54 agencies responsible for the U.S. domestic market, including Organic Crop Improvement Association, Quality Assurance International (QAI), and Indiana Certified Organic.

Food producers who want to use the NOP organic seal apply for certification at their local agency. Exempted are small producers with an annual sales of $5,000 US or less. However, they, too, should be NOP standards compliant and are subject to production audit, if necessary. In addition, organic products produced outside the U.S. also need to be certified. The USDA has accredited at last count 44 foreign agencies to perform inspection, audit, and certification on organic products that are allowed in the U.S. market.

But, all is not well in the organic realm. Organic labeling remains complicated and confusing. In the U.S. the following terminology is allowed on organic food products:4

  • “100% organic” - single ingredient such as a fruit, vegetable, meat, milk and cheese (excludes water and salt).
  • “Organic” - multiple ingredient foods which are 95 to 100% organic.
  • “Made with organic ingredients” - 70% of the ingredients are organic. Can appear on the front of package, naming the specific ingredients.
  • “Contains organic ingredients” - contains less than 70% organic ingredients.
  • Only those products that meet the '100% organic' and 'organic' criteria are allowed to carry the USDA Organic seal and the USDA emphasizes that the term 'organic' is not synonymous to 'natural' or 'all-natural'.

Advocacy groups have put forward the following objections to the current organic labeling.5

Lax national standards. Many advocacy groups are strongly critical of NOP's system of organic certification. They feel that the agency standards are lax and the certification procedure is unreliable, especially those occurring abroad. In addition, the original Organic Act's mandate for pesticide testing has been declared optional.

Loophole in the Act.  The ability to petition for amendments to the National List are being viewed by many as a big loophole resulting in food producers using the process to their advantage. The original goal was to shrink rather than expand the list. So far, only 1 substance has been removed whereas more than 60 have been added and several more are on petition.

Consumers are not getting what they are paying for. Organic food products are usually more expensive than conventional products. For paying extra, the consumers expect food that is free from pesticides and chemicals. If the national organic standards were to be lowered, the consumers are actually being "ripped off."

Watered down. Many believe that with the participation of corporate giants in the organic food market, the organic principle has been seriously "watered down". They put this down to big companies' strong lobbying power, forcing NOP to make concessions and lower national organic standards to accommodate them. According to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, who sponsored the federal organics legislation in the Senate "It will unravel everything we've done if the standards can no longer be trusted. If we don't protect the brand, the organic label, the program is finished. It could disappear overnight."

Greenwashing. Some groups even go as far as accusing the NOP of greenwashing, that the organic seal is just a marketing ploy. Examples of greenwashing activities include importing organic powdered milk all the way from New Zealand and keeping a larger number of organic cows in a smaller space, somewhat similar to industrial scale feedlots.6


The NOP may not be effective in regulating the organic food market

November 2005 - The Cornucopia Institute filed a complaint against Aurora Organic Dairy for multiple violations of federal organic regulations. "From our investigation, review of records and extensive interviews with the ranch owner, it appears that the operation has never had its livestock practices certified as organic",according to a Cornucopia spokesperson. Aurora is the supplier to big supermarket chains like Safeway, Wal-Mart, and Costco. Of interest four years later a judge in the federal district court in St. Louis dismissed class action suits filed by consumers against Aurora Dairy for organic milk fraud.7,8

January 2007 - The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute reported that the retailer giant Wal-Mart is mislabeling certain products organic. The product packaging says "all natural" but Wal-Mart added the word organic to its price labels.

July 2007 - The Daily Green reported that the USDA has proposed the inclusion of 38 new products to the National List. Some of these products include celery powder, chia from China and food colourings. The main reason for the petitions is the fact that no organic version of the product is available and that "the organic…market isn't large enough to inspire a farmer to produce the product". The advocacy group Organic Consumers Association have expressed objections to the inclusion of some of the products, especially the food colorings. Since the preparation of the original list in 2002, the number of exempt substances has reportedly almost tripled.9

August 2008 - The USDA announced that 15 of its accredited certifying agencies had been placed on probation due to various violations of the NOP organic standards, according to AlterNet. The violations came to light during a USDA audit and included several certifying agencies from outside the United States. This includes agencies in China, a country which has recently been implicated in toxic contaminations, including lead to melamine. One product concerned an organically certified ginger which however contained a non-allowable pesticide called aldicarb. The ginger, sold under the 365 label at Whole Foods Market, contained a level of aldicarb not even permissible for conventional ginger, let alone organics.  Aldicard causes nausea, headaches and blurred vision even at low concentrations.

There are concerns that the Chinese certifying agencies are not doing their jobs properly. However, the Chinese government does not allow foreigners to conduct inspection of Chinese farms. According to Dr. Robert E. Hegel, professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis "Everybody there is so proud of increased production that few people ask much about the farmer's production methods. And there's no 'organic' food tradition in China…everything was just food".10

April 2009 - The Cornucopia Institute urges organic food consumers to petition the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to remove non-organic soy lecithin from the National List. Soy lecithin is used as an emulsifier in chocolate production. The Institute claims organic lecithin is now commercially available.

The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances has become a minefield!

To be certified "organic", a product must contain 95% organic ingredients or materials during its production. The other 5% should be on the list of allowable synthetic substances.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 required the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances which identifies synthetic substances that may be used, and the non synthetic substances that cannot be used, in organic production and handling. The list of allowable and non-allowable substances is the responsibility of the National Organic Standards Board, a 15-member panel of advisers appointed by the USDA.11

The original National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances was prepared in 2002 but has been amended since then. The amendments are due to the fact that food producers can file a petition to include substances that are not on the original list but which they think are essential in their production. The NOSB will then evaluate and decide on the petition.

Section 6517(e) of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, as amended, provides a sunset provision of 5 years for substances on the National List. In June 2007, a final amended National List was issued, which specified the criteria for inclusion or exclusion from the list of synthetic substances. The number of allowable substances has increased from 77 to 245.

Corporate alliances

As opposed to the practices of a natural chemical-free approach to farming consumer groups and some organic pioneers say they are concerned that corporate food production will eventually create a watered down organic food industry unless firm standards are maintained. Other groups feel that conflicts of interest may arise between conventional and organic food production. Organic production used to be a niche market for small organic farmers. As organic production goes mainstream, these small farmers would be out competed and driven out of business.12

As people become more and more health and socially conscious, the demand for organic and green products is increasing and it is getting harder and harder to find organic ingredients. As a result the whole supply chain of organic food production is becoming more complicated.13

Producers are forced to take short cuts in order to stay competitive. In the U.S. there aren't enough organic cows to produce organic milk. Even if there were enough cows, there aren't enough grains to feed them. It is no longer possible to feed cows with raw grass to obtain raw grass-fed milk unless the farmer applies fertilizers to his pasture to make the grass grow faster.

The Cornucopia Institute estimates that 30 to 40% of organic milk is now coming from giant industrial operations, milking as many as 7000 cows each.  Some companies are forced to look offshore for organic ingredients, thereby violating several organic principles, not necessarily in the production process, but in terms of low labor costs and high transport costs.

The Bottom Line

The increased demand for organic food may actually be its own undoing. The organic food industry has clearly outgrown the original regulations meant to protect it and its consumers.

The philosophy that requires farmers to treat their people and livestock with respect and, ideally, to sell small batches of what they produce locally so as to avoid burning fossil fuels to transport them is rapidly vanishing. How 'organic is organic food' is even more important now than in the past!

Published September 30, 2009, updated July 11, 2012


  1. Who Owns Organic? Cornucopia Institute
  2. Federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, USDA
  3. National Organic Program, USDA
  4. Organic Food Labeling, National Agricultural Library USDA
  5. Kindy K et al, USDA organic label comes under fire, LA Times 3 July 2009
  6. Merchant B, Has the 'Organic' Label Become the Biggest Greenwashing Campaign in the US? Tree Hugger 3 July 2009
  7. Cornucopia Institute Requests Full USDA Investigation of Suspect Dairy Improprieties Alleged at Organic Factory Farm in Colorado, Organic Consumers Association, 10 November 2005
  8. Judge’s Ruling Fuels Meltdown in Organic Dairy Industry, WebWire 9 June 2009
  9. Berner K, 38 Non-Organic Ingredients Found in 'USDA Organic' Foods, The Daily Green 19 July 2007
  10. Richardson J, Is Your Organic Food Really Organic?, Environment, AlterNet August 6, 2008
  11. National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, July 9, 2012
  12. Warner M, What Is Organic? Powerful Players Want a Say, The New York Times, 1 November 2005
  13. The Organic Myth, Business Week 16 October 2006

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