Syndicated Column: EcoHealthy Living

By Patricia Dines

Sample column

For more information about EcoHealthy Living, and carrying this column in your publication, see the main EcoHealthy Living page.

Taking Wise Action to Help Protect Organic
By Patricia Dines
(c) Patricia Dines, 2007. All rights reserved.
Unfortunately, dramatic headlines and flawed analysis are clouding consumers' ability to take informed action about what's going on now with organic standards.
For instance, the Press Democrat's June 9 front page article, "FDA Loosens Rules For Organic" erroneously paints a picture of organic regulations gone wild. A skimming reader could easily conclude that a product could be called organic but have no organic ingredients, which is absolutely false. But how many readers understand enough about the regulations to sort this out? Instead, they're probably left just a little less certain about organic's integrity, a little less enthusiastic about supporting it.
The current issue is actually much more narrow and focused than that picture, a technical clarification in how standards for organic processed foods are implemented. In fact, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) actually sees this clarification as a tightening of the rules, rectifying something that was inadequately defined before.
It's still helpful to take action on this issue, but informed action will better protect organic's gift to our health and planet.
(1) The current issue is what's allowed in processed foods that are called organic. There's no impact on organic produce standards.
(2) From the inception of the national regulations, these have been the top two categories of organic processed food:
"100% Organic" which has 100% organic ingredients (excluding water and salt, which it doesn't make sense to define as organic), and
"Organic" which has at least 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% of the product can't include GMOs, but can include non-organic items, if organic of that item isn't commercially available.
This exception seems to have been established so that the lack of certain minor adjunct ingredients in organic form wouldn't block entire product categories from being organic. However, I and others disagree with this choice. "Organic" should mean 100% for processed foods, as it does with produce. If a producer can't find something organic, they should encourage someone to produce it, and in the meantime call their product 95% organic or whatever.
However, this design was decided years ago, and for me the solution has been simple: I check the labels for any product other than 100% organic to see what else is in there. I think organic overall is valuable enough for me to make this small adaptation.
(3) What's being debated now is what's allowed in the other 5% in the "organic" category. Previously, each organic certifier determined its standard for "not commercially available," which caused inconsistent application not visible to the consumer. Two years ago, a judge decided that the USDA needed to centrally determine which ingredients would get the "not commercially available" designation, and food producers would submit requests and justifications to get on that approved list. Thus this determination is brought to a consistent and visible level, which is a good thing.
(4) So, based on the petitions received, the USDA has proposed 38 minor ingredients (such as rice starch and food colorings) for this approved list. That's all the current news is. Important, yes, but all of organic isn't at stake here.
Now, some of us would prefer that there be no exceptions list at all, and I encourage you to act for that. However, as long as flexibility is allowed, it needs to be defined. That's why the current proposed list isn't a "loosening" of the rules but a clarification of them.
TAKE ACTION: However, you can object to the specific 38 items they've allowed, during the public comment period. I've put links on my website to sites that allow you take quick action on this issue. See <>. This webpage also shows the newspaper articles on this topic, as well as the OTA perspective, and my comments about what's useful information and what's erroneous.
(5) Most importantly, be assured that overall the organic regulations are intact and worthy of our continued support. Organic is the best way we have right now to support food grown without toxics. Yes, we still need to read labels, watchdog the USDA, and stand up for organic's integrity, but from understanding, not erroneous fear.
I hope that this article helps you participate in maintaining the opportunity of organic for us all. To keep informed about these and other ecological issues, check out my EcoNews Blog at <>.
Patricia Dines is Author of The Organic Guide to Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino Counties, and Editor and Lead Writer for The Next STEP newsletter, which gently educates readers about toxics and alternatives.

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EcoHealthy Living is a syndicated column. Contact Ms. Dines for information about carrying it in your periodical.

This entire website is (c) Patricia Dines, 1998-2007. All rights reserved.
Page last updated 08/04/07