Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organic ingredients list leaves manufacturers in limbo

The list of nonorganic additives that manufacturers can use in certified organic products will soon change—though whether this change relaxes organic standards or closes loopholes in the previous approach and makes the organic rule more stringent is open to debate.

Until recently, individual certifiers were allowed to determine whether a manufacturer could use a nonorganic ingredient, in circumstances where the organic counterpart was not available "in the appropriate form, quality or quantity." The resulting product was still certified organic as long as the certified ingredient total was more than 95 percent.

As of midnight June 8, the list of nonorganic ingredients that organic products can contain is down to just five, all mentioned by name in the organic rule, 205.606. These include kelp, corn starch, lecithin, pectin, and gums, such as carob, locust bean and guar. "Manufacturers currently using any other substance not on this list need to switch to organic ingredients or change their labels," said Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota and former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board. The current changes are a result of a lawsuit brought by Arthur Harvey, an organic blueberry farmer from Maine, who objected to the United States Department of Agriculture's interpretation of the organic rule, which allowed certifiers to determine whether a particular nonorganic ingredient could be used in an organic product. He sued the USDA, and the courts agreed with him. On June 8, 2005, the court gave the USDA two years to add a specific list of nonorganic agricultural ingredients to the National List.

At that point, manufacturers and suppliers began to lobby the NOSB for inclusion of specific ingredients on the new list. "They saw the writing on the wall and began to petition on ingredients they believed were not available in the appropriate form, quality or quantity," said Holly Givens, communication director for the Organic Trade Association. "The petitions were reviewed by the NOSB, some were rejected, and 38 were approved by the NOSB and recommended to USDA."

Many of the recommendations—such as the inclusion of blackberry and paprika as colorants—have attracted little debate. But several other proposals are viewed with concern by many consumers and others associated with the industry.

One example is the petition to allow brewers to use nonorganic hops in beer certified organic. Under the "form, quality or quantity" clause of the law, small brewers who require only a few tons of hops might be required to purchase organic, while large brewers like Anheuser-Busch, which recently introduced two organic beers, might be exempted because of the scale of their ingredient purchases. "Larger breweries would really benefit financially from using nonorganic hops and still using the word organic,' Riddle said.

Another key issue is the proposed exemption for sausage casings from nonorganic animals. "The proposed rule presented no evidence that the current byproducts from organic animals are insufficient to meet demand for organic hot dogs and bratwurst," Riddle said. "When someone buys bratwurst, they eat the entire thing. A lot of consumers would be shocked to learn that the meat inside is organic but the casing is not."

In addition, the USDA allowed nearly two full years for industry petitions, but when the proposed rule was published, only seven days were given for public comment. "That's unprecedented," Riddle said.

The old way of doing business, with the certifiers making the call, ceased on June 8, but the final rule on nonorganic agricultural ingredients has not yet been published in the Federal Register, leaving some manufacturers in legal limbo.

"The most important thing from my point of view is that, no matter what they put on the list right now, we need to be able to change and review the list in the future," said Mark Lipson, policy program director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "It's crucial that permission to use these things doesn't discourage the development of organic supplies."

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