Are You Being Misled By the USDA’s Certified Organic Label?

December 3rd, 2009

USDA Organic CertificationOrganic food is an important part of a healthy diet, but because of its growing popularity, large corporations are taking advantage of the opportunity and are deteriorating the reliability of the USDA’s organic certification requirements in the process.

The USDA’s organic seal is the most widely recognized and trusted marker of organic foods. For this label to be used on food products, they should be free of unnatural ingredients, should not be genetically modified or irradiated, and should be from crops that are grown without chemicals and livestock that are raised without antibiotics or hormones. Despite the many benefits of certified organic food, it’s unfortunately not always as healthy or pure as you may think.

Taking Advantage of a Rising Trend

The market for organic food has been rapidly growing and generated about $52 billion in revenue during 2008. As you’d expect with any rising trend, large corporations are getting more involved with the organic food market and are practically taking it over.

Phillip Howard, an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, has been paying close attention to the organic food industry and has created a chart depicting the many organic brands that have been acquired by large food manufacturers. A shockingly large amount of organic foods and beverages are produced under the same ownership as some of the most processed and unhealthy foods available which makes it obvious that the underlying principles of organic farming are not a top priority.

Heinz owns 23 different organic brands. Kellogg, the same company that produces breakfast cereals that are labeled deceptively and loaded with unnatural additives and unhealthy sugar, also owns the popular Kashi line of organic whole grain foods. Coca-Cola, the same company that promotes sugar filled sodas and their zero calorie alternatives that contain dangerous sweeteners like aspartame, also owns the Honest Tea brand of organic beverages that are proudly marketed as having half the sugar content of other brands.

Some of the most notorious food processors, including Cargill, Dean, ConAgra, Kraft, Pepsi, and General Mills, are increasing their foothold on the organic food industry as well. Can you honestly believe that these companies are truly embracing the values of organic farming? Dean Foods certainly isn’t. The producers of their Horizon brand of organic dairy have been under considerable criticism for violating the USDA’s organic certification requirements.

95% Organic and 5% Deception

Unless the label of a certified organic product specifies that it’s 100% organic, the USDA only requires that 95% of its ingredients are organic. This means that the remaining 5% may not be organic and may even be synthetic. In fact, the USDA’s list of allowed and prohibited substances includes more than 200 non organic and synthetic items that can be used as ingredients in certified organic foods or be used to feed livestock or grow crops that certified organic foods are produced from. According to this article from the L.A. Times, the USDA’s list of allowable synthetic and non organic substances has increased from 77 to 245 between the years 2002 and 2007, and while the original goal was to reduce this list, only a single item has been removed.

While many of the allowed substances on the USDA’s list are likely to be harmless, they still contradict the nature based principles of organic food and give a good indication of how the requirements for organic certification are being influenced. Most large food manufacturers are much more interested in efficiency and profit than the underlying principles of organic farming. As a result, their political lobbying efforts have contributed to the dramatic increase in the number of allowable synthetic and non organic substances that can be used in the production of organic food. This is why the market is flooded with organic products that are highly processed and not nearly as healthy as many people think.

Whose Interest is the USDA Looking to Serve?

One of the many subjects of contention regarding the authenticity of the USDA’s certified organic seal, as described by this article from The Washington Post, is the existence of synthetic fatty acids in certified organic baby formula. Although this issue arose several years ago and was considered to be a violation of organic standards by USDA staff members, particularly because the fatty acids are derived from a toxic substance, USDA Deputy Administrator Barbara Robinson overruled her staff. As a result, these synthetic fatty acids still exist in most baby formulas. The manufacturers of these fatty acids claim that they’re safe, and they may very well be, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be included in organic foods or that the standards of organic food should depend on such claims.

Another questionable move by Robinson was her proposal to allow the conditional use of pesticides for growing certified organic crops. She also proposed that non organic fish meal, which can contain mercury and PCBs, could be used to feed livestock that produce certified organic food. Fortunately, these proposals never became law, but it’s another unfortunate indication that the USDA’s certified organic seal isn’t as meaningful as many of us would like it to be.

The Flawed Standards for Organic Animal Products

Animals that produce organic foods can’t be given antibiotics or hormones and must be fed a diet that meets organic standards. However, there’s no requirement for livestock to be fed what they eat in nature. For example, cattle that produce certified organic dairy and beef products may be fed grains instead of their natural diet of grass. Regardless of whether or not the grain based feed is organic, this compromises the health of the animals and alters the nutritional content of the food that they produce. This is particularly the case with essential fatty acids. Cattle that are fed grains tend to produce meat and dairy that contain more omega 6 fatty acids and less omega 3 fatty acids than normal. This contributes to the imbalance that many people already have and may increase the risk of serious health conditions including heart disease and cancer.

The USDA requires that livestock used for the production of certified organic food have access to natural pasture. However, this requirement is extremely vague and has drawn a lot of criticism. Fortunately, the USDA has proposed a more definitive revision which requires that livestock spend a minimum of 120 days on pasture and that this represents at least 30% of their diet. Although this is a drastic improvement, it still leaves plenty of room for unnatural practices and requires that you closely evaluate your sources of meat and dairy.

What Does Organic Mean to You?

Many people equate the USDA’s green and white organic seal with healthy food choices without giving it any further thought. This is exactly what large food manufacturers are hoping for and is what allows them to profit greatly from organic foods that are highly processed and not much healthier than their conventional counterparts.

Organic processed foods are a nice option that lessen the insult of indulging in moderation, but some people make the mistake of thinking that these foods are healthy. Although it’s arguable whether or not it’s the USDA’s responsibility to correct this flawed mentality, it certainly is their responsibility to prevent the food industry from degrading the standards of organic food as they try to profit from this lack of awareness.

In my opinion, organic food is about valuing nature’s ability to produce the safest and most nutritious food available which is typically natural whole foods. According to this perspective, highly processed foods can be made with organic ingredients, but can’t truly be considered organic themselves, and as such, they certainly shouldn’t be influencing the standards of organic certification as they are today.

Despite the concerns regarding the USDA’s certified organic label, it’s still nice to have. However, if you want to promote optimal health through an excellent diet, you shouldn’t trust this label blindly. Instead, you need to take responsibility for your health and commit yourself to finding reputable sources of high quality food. EatWild.com, LocalHarvest.org, and the EatWellGuide.org are all great places to start. Keep in mind that some of the highest quality foods may come from farmers who haven’t gone through the USDA’s certification process.

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