Food and Cuisine

Published on July 12th, 2009 | by Jennifer Lance


Bush Administration Actions that Weakened USDA Organic Label

Concern has been raised recently about the integrity of the USDA organic label.  Non-organic additives have been allowed in USDA organic labeled products, and consumer groups and Congress are concerned.  Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) explains, “It will unravel everything we’ve done if the standards can no longer be trusted. If we don’t protect the brand, the organic label, the program is finished. It could disappear overnight.”  The Obama administration has pledged to “protect the label”, but under the Bush administration several directives weakened organic standards.

Image by boltron-Organic standards weakened under the Bush administration

Organic standards weakened under the Bush administration

The Washington Post describes some of the non-organic additives that are allowed under the weakened USDA organic label:

Grated organic cheese, for example, contains wood starch to prevent clumping. Organic beer can be made from non-organic hops. Organic mock duck contains a synthetic ingredient that gives it an authentic, stringy texture.

How did these additives enter the organic market?  As large food corporations have bought up smaller organic labels, lobbyists have pressured the USDA.  Repeatedly, the Bush administration caved into demands to weaken organic standards.

  • The National Organic Program’s (NOP) director Barbara Robinson “overruled staff who had determined that omega-3 DHA and ARA oils should not be approved in organic production” of infant formula.
  • Instead of decreasing the number of non-organic additives, as intended by the original law, “That list has grown from 77 to 245 substances since it was created in 2002.”
  • “Optional” pesticide testing has never been implemented.
  • Antibiotic use is allowed in organic dairy cows “with zero input from the public or the National Organic Standards Board“.  Antibiotics can be used on sickly cows, whose milk still qualifies as organic if 12 months have passed since the antibiotic use.
  • Cattle ranchers can feed cows non-organic fish meal that may contain PCBs, mercury, and preservatives and still qualify the meat as organic.
  • A legal directive was issued allowing “some synthetic pesticides on organic farms“.
  • Organic certification was limited to just livestock and crops, while ignoring the development of organic standards for “fish, nutritional supplements, pet food, fertilizers, cosmetics, and personal-care products.”
  • Director Robinson “opted not to issue standards spelling out how organic food must be grown, treated or produced,” and she failed to act on 65 recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board.
  • “Access to pasture” was not clarified or interpreted allowing organic dairy farmers to use feedlots.

Several of these directives were rescinded by Bush’s agriculture secretary Ann Veneman, but concern over the weakened organic label has not gone away.  The Cornucopia Institute’s senior farm policy analyst Mark A. Kastel explains:

The stewardship of the organic program at the USDA has been an absolute abomination.  It was not just management by neglect—it was an intentional monkeywrenching of the Department’s oversight of the industry…The Washington Post investigative story is a scathing indictment of the National Organic Program’s current director, Barbara Robinson.  The example of her overruling professional staff at the NOP, by allowing synthetic, gimmicky additives to be included in organic baby food, after a phone call from a powerful Washington lobbyist, is absolutely reprehensible.

President Lincoln called the US Department of Agriculture the “People’s Department“.  Hopefully Obama’s secretary Vilsack will restore the integrity of the USDA organic label.

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