The definition of “organic” has been changing for years. Buying organic is not the promise of purity it once was. The latest shift in USDA organic labeling standards—enacted without any public input—is raising the hackles of many food industry watchdogs.
In 2005, the USDA set a five-year window for the phasing-out of certain substances that, according to a common-sense definition of “organic,” should not be present in food. This included synthetic or potentially harmful substances that would have been difficult to jettison immediately. Up until September 2013, those exemptions were supposed to exist for five years, at which point they could only be maintained through a 2/3 decisive majority vote by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and a public review.
Stealthily, the USDA reversed this ruling. The new law states that all these exempt materials can be permitted in organic food unless a 2/3 majority of the NOSB votes to remove them from the list. These exemptions can be re-listed indefinitely without outside input (from an independent board, for example, or from the public). The reversal was initiated and completed without any public input. You can read more about it here. According to the USDA, this change was made to create more transparency, but at Ageology, we can’t figure out how these changes in this so-called “sunset rule” could possibly serve that end.
Ultimately, this change moves the burden of identifying substances that should not be in our food supply from the government to consumers and environmentalists. This is unacceptable. Consumer groups like Consumers Union are letting the public know, and we will keep you posted on any developments.
For the time being, know that the “organic” label is increasingly failing to deliver much promise to consumers about the purity of their food. To protect yourself, Ageology physicians recommend avoiding packaged and processed foods as much as possible. Grow your own vegetables and fruits or buy from local producers. Frequent farmer’s markets—where, nowadays, you can often buy foods like eggs, cheese and meats alongside vegetables, fruits and herbs.
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