Organic industry divided over synthetic ingredients

A Capitol Hill decision to allow the ongoing use of nonorganic ingredients like pectin and ascorbic acid in the production of organic foods has split the organic foods industry.

The traditionalist camp is devastated Congress has added a rider to a bill that will potentially grant hundreds of synthetic ingredients a continued role in organic foods. The Organic Consumers Association, the National Organic Coalition and other groups were adamant that a June Court of Appeals ruling that found the use of 38 synthetic ingredients in foods labelled ?organic? contravened the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) should have been upheld.

?Congress has weakened the national organic standards that consumers count on to preserve the integrity of the organic label,? said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. ?The rider will take away the traditional role of the organic community and the National Organic Standards Board in monitoring and controlling organic standards. Industry?s stealth attack has unnecessarily damaged the standards that helped organic foods become the fastest-growing sector in the food industry.?

Cummins warned it was not necessarily the 38 ingredients that were inherently dangerous for the industry, but the opportunities the amendment may open to as many as 500 synthetic ingredients.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) welcomed the action, asserting the use of such ingredients was vital to the health of the organic sector.

?We want to thank Congress for responding so promptly to our request for clarification,? said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of OTA. ?We took this approach because we honour the public rule-making process that created the national organic standards that have been in place since October 2002.?

Congress adopted OTA-submitted language to amend the OFPA to allow the continued use of synthetic materials in post-harvest handling and processing, and provisions for dairies converting to organic production.

?If Congress had not acted, many of the organic products consumers know and love would have disappeared,? DiMatteo said.

Congress also directed the USDA to study the impact of its decision.

?In theory the beneficiaries of this action will be mostly larger companies making processed, multi-ingredient products, but in the long run if consumers rebel, then it gets harder to determine who the beneficiaries really are,? one organic commentator observed. ?The OTA may have a massive job on its hands to convince consumers the organic label can still be trusted.?

Grace Marroquin, owner of California-based ingredients supplier Marroquin International Organic Commodity Services Inc, backed the decision. ?The reason such exceptions to the organic rule exist is because many of these ingredients aren?t available organically and some products cannot be made without them. There are companies, like ourselves, that are working on developing organic varieties of some of these ingredients, but it is going to take a long time. We believe this decision will assist the industry as a whole to grow. That means more organically farmed land and a healthier environment.?

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