Food and Cuisine

Published on July 6th, 2009 | by Jennifer Lance

USDA Organic Label Standards Being Weakened by Lobbyists

When the USDA label was first implemented in 2002, concern was expressed that certification standards would not be as stringent as the private organic labeling programs it replaced, such as the Oregon Tilth.

Prior to 2002, organic certifiers each had their own standards that they used when certifying organic produce and products.  The standards were similar, but they were each different and were owned by the certifier.  In 2002 the USDA National Organic Program took effect, and the NOP Final Rule became the one standard used for certifying organic products in the US.  Since that time, when you pick up a product labeled organic you know that it was certified to the same standard as all other organic products, regardless of who certified it.

Image by ilovebutterUSDA organic standards weakened by lobbyists

USDA organic standards weakened by lobbyists

Now it seems those fears of a weakened national organic standard have come to fruition from lobbyists interference. The Washington Post cites an example involving infant formula.

Three years ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture employees determined that synthetic additives in organic baby formula violated federal standards and should be banned from a product carrying the federal organic label. Today the same additives, purported to boost brainpower and vision, can be found in 90 percent of organic baby formula.

Why would the USDA relax organic standards?  Consumers want organic products, and the market continues to grow.  It’s the “the fastest growing segment of the food industry” and is a “$23 billion-a-year business”.  It appears it is now corrupted by agribusiness’ powerful lobby. The Post reports:

The market’s expansion is fueling tension over whether the federal program should be governed by a strict interpretation of “organic” or broadened to include more products by allowing trace elements of non-organic substances. The argument is not over whether the non-organics pose a health threat, but whether they weaken the integrity of the federal organic label.

A weakened organic standard only helps big business and not consumers. U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board Chairman Jeff Moyer explains, “As the organic industry matures, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find a balance between the integrity of the word ‘organic’ and the desire for the industry to grow.”  Consumers can’t trust the USDA Organic logo and must instead seek out reputable companies who maintain high standards and avoid synthetic additives.  In general, avoiding processed foods and purchasing from local farmers is the safest way to ensure your food is truly organic.

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19 Responses to USDA Organic Label Standards Being Weakened by Lobbyists

  1. James Everett says:

    Great post, Jen! I would love to learn more about who the lobbyists are, and what their agenda is.

  2. Thanks Jamie. I am planning a follow up post soon with more info on the Bush administration directives that further weakened the label.

  3. Interesting. We the public need to keep on top of these changes. Thanks for the alert.

    There is plenty of evidence of the harm that conventional food is doing to our nutrition (if we choose to eat it) as well as to the land by abusing the land and animals with a variety of chemicals.

  4. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) would like to take this opportunity to correct some inaccuracies that appear in the Washington Post article that you reference in your blog.

    First, the federal organic standards have not been “relaxed.” Rigorously enforced standards can and do go hand-in-hand with growth. The author of the Washington Post article and those pitching this story have generously borrowed the rhetorical technique of setting up a false choice between these two concepts. The industry and OTA have long pushed for national organic regulations that consumers can rely on. As a result, organic agriculture and products remain the most strictly regulated, as well as the fastest growing, food system in the United States today.

    OTA would also like to point out that the Approved use of a very limited number of non-organic natural and synthetic materials has always been recognized as being important in order to allow consumers organic choices for everyday products. The Final Rule for USDA’s National Organic Program provided for 54 synthetic materials to be allowed in crop production; 31 synthetics to be allowed in livestock production, and 41 synthetics to be allowed in organic processing (along with 27 non-synthetic, non-agricultural materials such as baking soda).

    Since 2002, two additional synthetics have been allowed in crop production; seven additional synthetics have been allowed for livestock production, and eight additional synthetics have been allowed for use in organic processing. One material has been removed, as the article states, and one material was recommended for removal at the last NOSB meeting on May 6, 2009 for a net gain of 15 new synthetic materials and 13 new non-organic natural materials approved for use since 2002.

    Finally, OTA would like to address the issue of organic and big business. A common misconception is that large organic manufacturers are held to a different standard than those that operate on a smaller scale. In fact, organic processors and handlers of all sizes are held to the exact same set of standards. Set forth by the National Organic Program, these standards outline different categories of organic products. Regardless of the size of operation, products bearing labels referencing these categories must comply with the government-regulated definitions of them.

    Another common misperception is that organic has been, as you put it, “corrupted by agribusiness’ powerful lobby.” It is worth noting here that OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers’ associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA’s Board of Directors is democratically elected by its members. OTA’s mission is to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy.

    Two-thirds of OTA members are small businesses with under $1 million dollars in annual organic sales. Nearly half of OTA members report under $100,000 in annual organic sales. All trade members have one vote, regardless of size.

    For more information on this and other issues related to organic, please visit

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  6. Cheryl says:

    Any information on the World Trade Organization or the House and Senate bills they are trying to pass? People should be aware of this

  7. Kw Jaxon says:

    OTA? … Sounds like a big AG front group. Buy local from people you know and trust. Otherwise its just another big business ripoff.

  8. Great information! Conventional food is not always safe to our health. We have to be careful in choosing it.

  9. From the Washington Post:
    “The Organic Trade Association, which represents corporations such as Kraft, Dole and Dean Foods, lobbied for and received language in a 2006 appropriations bill allowing certain synthetic food substances in the preparation, processing and packaging of organic foods, creating conditions for a flood of processed organic foods.”

    There’s your lobbyist leaving comments here too!

  10. Theodor Ivanov says:

    Thanks Jamie. I am planning a follow up post soon with more info on the Bush administration directives that further weakened the label.BRILIANT!!!

  11. Steve S says:

    0.7% of us cropland is certified Organic (USDA Census of Ag, 2007). A large proportion of Organic in US stores comes from the same large produce players who dominate conventional (and excellent companies by the way). Another significant proportion of what is marketed as Organic is imported, often from places like China where one might reasonably have serious questions about just how “Organic” it actually is. Stressing about some minor rule adjustments seems irrelevant (as is pointed out in the OTA comment above). The big question is, if Organic is ever going to become a meaningful part of the food supply beyond elites, what needs to change?

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  13. Benjamin says:

    I have been suspicious of the trustworthiness of the USDA organic label for some time,because of the USDA`s connection to special interests,and now I see I was right.So I guess the only thing for consumers to do now is to,as another commenter suggested,seek out local farms and food suppliers,seek out smaller independently-owned food companies,or to look for labels that have more than one organic certification or a more trustworthy one.If the collusion between agribusiness and government agencies goes any further,I may end up growing my own damn food.That link from the OTA doesnt give me much confidence either.

  14. Remember that its not just foods that are affected by these types of potential changes, its anything that is deemed as organic whether its household cleaners, bedding, clothing, etc. All these things affect our well-being as we are in constant contact with them. Most things are made overseas with all types of chemicals where the awareness is just not as great. We need to support our US organic companies and hold them to a higher standard if they want our business.

  15. Paul says:

    I know this article is a year old, but I am just now getting into the organic movement. What has frustrated me,as a consumer, is described above. What I am seeing now though in consumer response is heartening related to the above and that is a movement towards local farmer’s markets and farms in general from everything to Milk and eggs to Meat to Fruits and Vegetables. Getting to know your local farmer(s) is a great experience and buy “shares” in various CSA’s is both healthier eating and support of the local community directly. It is a great way to tell big Agg where to go…hopefully the trend will continue.

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