Washington Post staff writers Kimberly Kindy and Lyndsey Layton say the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organics Program is falling short, allowing synthetic ingredients or to be used in making organic foods.
In their long Page One story, Kindy and Layton never reveal crucial facts about the National Organic Program: it’s a marketing program, not a food safety program.
Relaxation of the federal standards, and an explosion of consumer demand, have helped push the organics market into a $23 billion-a-year business, the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Half of the country’s adults say they buy organic food often or sometimes, according to a survey last year by the Harvard School of Public Health.
But the USDA program’s shortcomings mean that consumers, who at times must pay twice as much for organic products, are not always getting what they expect: foods without pesticides and other chemicals, produced in a way that is gentle to the environment.
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.
The National Organic Program was established by Congress at the behest of firms in the business of producing or selling organic foods. The Program is administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, not by a food safety or environmental agency, and it is advised by the National Organic Standards Board. The NOSB is comprised of National Organic Program stakeholders: “four farmers/growers, two handlers/processors, one retailer, one scientist, three consumer/public interest advocates, four environmentalists, and one USDA accredited certifying agent.”
USDA certified organic foods command higher prices than conventional foods. Thus, it should be unsurprising that producers on the outside would like weaker standards so they can get in, and producers who are already in prefer stringent standards that would keep them out. Whether any of this inside-Washington activity is significant to consumers is hard to assess, in large part because there is little evidence that consumers have an accurate perception of what USDA certification actually means. Combatants often sponsor polls intended to buttress their preferred narratives, but polls rarely produce information of scholarly quality and are easy to frame to yield a desired result.
We blogged on the National Organic Program in September 2006, after the widely reported outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in organic spinach.