Carl K . Winter

Organic food sales in the United States have been increasing by about 20% per year since 1990 and are projected to reach $14.5 billion in 2005. The rapid growth of this relatively small but profitable food sector has attracted the interest of many more food companies eager to acquire their slice of the fruitful organic pie.

Congress recently played the role of Little Jack Horner by leaving a large thumbprint in this pie through which food companies may operate in the growing organic food market with different standards than previously agreed on and regulated to date.

The Congressional actions have sparked a bitter food fight between two frequent allies: the Organic Trade Association (OTA), an industry group that successfully lobbied for the new legislation and maintains that the legislation will allow for the continued growth of the organic food sector, and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a public interest group concerned that the new legislation will erode the organic standards that both organizations, among others, worked to create.

Congress acted in response to a June 2005 ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeals that identified inconsistencies between the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the National Organic Program standards that were implemented in 2002. Under the ruling, synthetic materials, such as baking powder, food-contact substances, and pectin, previously approved by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) for use in organic food production would no longer be allowed. In addition, all non-organic agricultural ingredients used as substitutes when supplies of organic ingredients are limited (foods may carry the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s “organic” label if they contain 95% or more of organic ingredients) must appear on the National List of approved materials.

Congress moved rapidly and attached an amendment to OFPA onto a 2006 agricultural appropriations bill that was passed in November 2005. The amendment allows the use of synthetic materials in the processing of organic foods but places no restrictions on the types of synthetic materials and provides no criteria for the review of such materials by NOSB. The amendment also gives the Secretary of Agriculture, rather than NOSB, the authority to write rules to allow the emergency use of non-organic agricultural ingredients in cases where organic forms are not available.

OTA applauded the Congressional intervention and maintains that the amendment will prevent disruptions in the present availability of organic foods while encouraging a greater conversion of agricultural lands to organic production in the future.

OCA, however, is much more skeptical and fears that the amendment will weaken organic standards and diminish public trust and support of the organic foods industry. It asserts that food companies could choose to sell foods labeled as “organic” while using processing techniques and food ingredients that are no different fundamentally from those used in the production of conventional foods and not identified on their products’ ingredient labels.

While the impacts of the amendment on consumers and the organic food industry are subject to debate, a review of the process by which the amendment was introduced to Congress is also warranted.

The organic foods movement in the U.S. is a grassroots success story, with its origins based on a principle that consumers, producers, and retailers can work together to develop food production methods that fit a prescribed set of ideals involving environmental stewardship, long-term sustainability, and consumer values. The adoption of the National Organic Program standards in 2002 resulted from two proposed rules, ten years of discussion among consumers, farmers, environmental groups, industry, and government, and more than 300,000 public comments concerning proposed rules.

In contrast, the 2005 amendment to the Organic Foods Production Act was added to the agricultural appropriations bill, without comparable time for meaningful discussion and debate, and rapidly became law. This approach has OCA outwardly denouncing the actions of Congress and OTA supporting the measure.

It remains to be seen what impact this amendment will have on the growth of the organic foods industry, the market shares of major food companies selling organic products, and the trust and purchasing patterns of consumers. The organic foods industry, despite a long history of stakeholder participation, is left in a state of uncertainty concerning issues that could lead to either its expansion or its demise.

by Carl K. Winter,
a Professional Member of IFT, is Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist, Dept. of Food Science and Technology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616 ([email protected]).