What’s in a name? That was the question riling the sustainable food community last fall as consumer groups, farmers and food processors battled over whether to amend the USDA’s “organic” labeling law.
The official definition of organic has been a contentious issue for years, with smaller growers and consumer groups usually demanding the strictest standards possible while bigger farms, large grocery chains and major food companies push for more flexible rules. In the past, disagreements over the USDA label have occurred within the confines of the organic movement. This time, however, partisans hurled accusations and countercharges across the internet and pages of major newspapers. The food fight offers a cautionary tale for the broader environmental community by raising the question: How can successful movements balance mainstream acceptance with commitment to their original values?
The recent labeling dispute centered on whether to allow companies to use synthetic ingredients when processing organic foods. In June 2005, a Federal Appeals Court upheld a lawsuit by organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey charging the USDA with violating several provisions of the Organic Foods Processing Act. The court agreed with Harvey that the Act does not in general permit synthetic substances in processed organic foods, and that any non-organic ingredients that must be used because of the unavailability of organic substitutes would need prior approval. Products that continued to use synthetics could only be labeled, “Made with Organic Ingredients,” instead of boasting the coveted USDA seal.
The Harvey appeal was supported by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), and the plaintiffs hoped the decision would lead to a public comment process during which new rules for synthetics would be established. But some of the large food companies within the Organic Trade Association (OTA) – a business group set up to expand the organic market – said a public comment process would take too long. Seeking a quicker resolution, the OTA in September began lobbying Congress to attach an amendment to the annual agricultural spending bill to “restore” the “status quo” – essentially, to change the original organic food act in order to reverse the Harvey decision.
The OCA quickly mobilized its activist list and, decrying what it called a “sneak attack” on the organic standards, urged people to contact Congress and ask for the proposed amendment to be struck down. Pointing out that the trade association includes conventional food companies such as Dole, General Mills, and Danone, the OCA alerts said the lobbying effort was “organized and funded by powerful pseudo-organic food processors and supermarket chains who have seized control of the Organic Trade Association.”
More than 300,000 people contacted Congress to protest the inclusion of synthetic ingredients in organic products. But in the end the efforts of the OTA’s three paid Washington lobbyists – at least one of whom is a longtime GOP operative – had greater influence than the calls and emails from ordinary consumers. During a closed-door meeting of the House-Senate Agricultural Conference Committee, Republican lawmakers inserted the OTA-backed amendment into the ag bill. Democrats who objected to the rider weren’t allowed to present compromise language. The new rules allowing synthetics to be used in organic processing are set to become law as soon as President Bush signs the spending bill.
Dismay about the changes has been widespread. AcresUSA, the oldest organic farming journal in the US, wrote that a “corporate mafia has seized control of the organic movement.” A New York Times editorial warned that the organic label is in danger of becoming “meaningless.”
“This violates the long-standing practice in the organic community of reaching consensus before making changes,” Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the OCA, told EIJ. “Basically, the OTA hired some sleazy K Street lobbyists to ram this through. They have become a mouthpiece for large corporations that have bought their way into the organic movement.”
Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the OTA, calls the accusations “exaggerated.” She counters that the OCA and other organic groups were the ones to break community consensus when they filed briefs supporting the Harvey lawsuit. DiMatteo also says that the organic standard has not been diluted since all ingredients still have to be included on the sides of products.
“Once the law is established and clearly stated, the companies are not deceiving the public in any way,” DiMatteo said. “There is transparency in what the public is given. The ingredients are right there on the box. “
Beyond the he said-she said of the dispute lies a much larger issue that should concern any activist eager to be part of a majority: Can movements be broadly popular and stay committed to their founding principles, or will some kind of compromise always be required?
Many contemporary progressive movements would no doubt love to have the problem that is at the heart of the organic community’s internecine fighting – mainstream acceptance. Nearly half of all US shoppers buy organic products on occasion, according to consumer surveys. While the rest of food industry struggles to grow, the organic sector is shooting upward by 20 percent a year, and is expected to post sales of $30 billion by 2007. More people eat organic food than at any time since the start of the industrial food age, and for anyone concerned about ecological sustainability, that’s a good thing. But the commercial success of organics has also attracted the attention of conventional food corporations that are simply interested in following the green.
For example, General Mills owns the organic brands Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen. Heinz holds a 20 percent equity share in food distributor Hain, which owns Rice Dream soy milk, Garden of Eatin’, Earth’s Best, and Health Valley, along with 15 other brands. Kellogg owns Sunrise Organic. Even agribusiness giant ConAgra is in on the act, recently introducing organic lines of its Orville Redenbacher popcorn and Hunt’s Tomato sauce brands.
Vanessa Bogenholm, an organic berry grower from Watsonville, California, is among those worried that the organic movement is losing its way.
“The main philosophical difference here is that I’m growing a product for integrity, and they [the large food companies] are doing it to fill a market niche,” said Bogenholm, who is also chairwoman of the board of the California Certified Organic Farmers, a group that sided with the OCA in the standard dispute. “I don’t think we want to trade integrity for profitability. I don’t think there have to be trade-offs for what ‘organics’ means.”
Bogenholm points out that when the organic movement started in the 1970s, it was driven by people who wanted to move away from processed foods and start eating more whole foods. The historical irony is that today most of the aisles in a Whole Foods chain supermarket are filled with goods that, while mostly organic, are also heavily processed.
OTA Director DiMatteo sees no problem with including synthetics if it means that more people will choose organic products. “The most enlightened shoppers will keep pushing the envelope,” she said. “But there are millions of people who aren’t there yet. We would like for as much agriculture to be organic as possible, which means that consumers have to have as many opportunities as possible to buy organic.”
The OCA’s Cummins counters that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between success and scruples. He argues that the key to expanding the movement is not to compromise its standards but to strengthen them, attracting people by articulating a vision of healthful food. The idea is to grow big – getting more Americans to eat organic – by going small – encouraging people to eat locally, support farmers’ markets, and join Community Supported Agriculture programs.
“We can’t be buying organic food and not thinking about where it’s coming from,” Cummins said. “We need to be raising the bar, not lowering it. And that’s how we grow our movement – by encouraging local, sustainable, regional food.”
Jason Mark is the co-author, with Kevin Danaher, of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power. He lives and works on an organic farm in California, where he is writing a book about the future of food.
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