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The Los Angeles Times reports that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is “considering a list of 38 nonorganic ingredients that will be permitted in organic foods. Because of the broad uses of these ingredients — as colorings and flavorings, for example — almost any type of manufactured organic food could be affected, including cereal, sausage, bread and beer.

“Organic food advocates have fought to block approval of some or all of the proposed ingredients, saying consumers would be misled.”

Now, the LA Times suggests that this is not quite a done deal – there was a Friday deadline by which point USDA was supposed to “name the nonorganic ingredients it would allow in organic foods, but the agency did not release its final list by the end of the day.” Since USDA did not release the final list, it is unknown whether this means that companies currently using these nonorganic ingredients in so-called organic products will have to stop, or will be forced to change their labels to reflect the fact that their products are not organic.

“With big companies entering what was formerly a mom-and-pop industry, new questions have arisen about what exactly goes into organic food,” the LA Times writes. “For food to be called organic, it must be grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Animals must be raised without antibiotics and growth hormones and given some access to the outdoors.

“Many nonorganic ingredients, including hops, are already being used in organic products, thanks to a USDA interpretation of the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990. In 2005, a federal judge disagreed with how the USDA was applying the law and gave the agency two years to revise its rules.

“Organic food supporters had hoped that the USDA would allow only a small number of substances, but were dismayed last month when the agency released the proposed list of 38 ingredients.”

KC's View:
We know that things are not simple, and that there is more demand for organic products than there is supply. And we understand that there are implications that many of us may not appreciate.

For example, MSNBC reports on a problem that many people may not think about when considering the growth of organic products. The story notes that Washington State currently has 45 organic dairies, a dramatic increase from the two that it had just five years ago. The demand for organic milk has been growing by about 20 percent annually in recent years, the story notes, and the demand for “organic feed is growing 20 percent each year, while U.S. production of organic row crops, such as corn and other feed, is growing only by as much as 4 percent.”

“The challenge has been feeding all of those cows,” MSNBC writes. “Acreage of organic forage, such as hay and alfalfa, has grown 40 percent in the past two years, yet isn’t keeping pace with demand. In particular, high-protein crops like soybeans that are necessary feed for dairy cows are in short supply in some regions, forcing some companies to import them from as far away as China.

“Given the recent problems with food and ingredient imports from China, in which a slew of products have been turned away by U.S. inspectors amid claims they are tainted, one might wonder if organic feed is actually organic.”

We accept all of this, but still have to wonder if these are mitigating circumstances under which the US government – which we would have thought would have the responsibility for making sure products are labeled accurately – ought to tolerate and even condone mislabeling.

We think not.

If there is a shortage of legitimately organic products because of a shortage of organic ingredients, c’est la vie. It may mean a slowdown in organic category growth, but you don’t relax the rules, because inevitably this will mean that the rules don’t mean anything, that consumers will have been fooled into believing in something that may not exist, and that eventually the category could dry up because it will have been diluted into irrelevance.

There may be some short-term benefit to companies’ bottom lines, but the long-term impact can only be negative.

“Organic” should mean “organic.” Pure and simple.

Anything else is a lie and an abuse not just of consumer trust, but also of the truth.

And at a time when there is growing consumer mistrust of the food supply because of safety issues that seem to emerge with ever-increasing regularity, we believe that retailers ought to be loud and clear in defending consumer interests and truth in labeling.