How Much of Your Food Labeled as Organic Is Actually Organic?

The USDA keeps a list of inorganic products that can legally go into foods labeled organic, but new board members could change things

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When is "USDA Organic" not organic? More often than you probably realize. The USDA keeps a "National List" of inorganic products that can legally go into foods labeled as organic. The casings for those tasty USDA Organic sausages can come from conventionally raised animals that have been fed antibiotics. The hops in your favorite organic beer can be sprayed with all manner of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Strawberries can be labeled as organic even if they had their start in a conventional nursery.

According to USDA rules, if 95 percent of a product is made up of organic ingredients, it can be called organic. If it's 70 percent organic, the label can read "made with organic ingredients."

For the past several years, public interest groups such as the Cornucopia Institute have complained that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which has the power to determine what materials can -- and cannot -- be used in organic production, too often weakens regulations in the face of intense lobbying by corporations who are more interested in the higher profits conferred by the word "organic" than in strong and meaningful standards.

Clad in well-worn jeans, a denim vest over a salmon-colored turtleneck sweater, and a pair of scuffed work boots, Richardson snooped from one end of the bakery to the other.

Recently, five new members were nominated for five-year terms to the 15-member board. The Obama administration has had a schizophrenic relationship with agriculture, on one hand cozying up to the likes of Monsanto Co. by advocating for GM crops, and on the other hand winning plaudits from small farm and organic advocates for programs like Know Your Farmer Know your Food and the White House organic garden.

So I was interested to see what type of NOSB appointees were selected. Fortunately, for a firsthand look all I had to do was get in my car and drive 20 miles up the road to Shelburne Farms, where Jean Richardson, an organic inspector, was conducting the annual inspection of O Bread bakery one recent afternoon.

For the past 10 years, Richardson, whom I know personally, has worked primarily for the Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF) certifying organization, which is part of Northeastern Organic Farming Association-Vermont (NOFA-VT). That will change in January: As one of the new NOSB members, her decisions and suggestions will affect any American who grows, produces, processes, or buys organic products.

Clad in well-worn jeans, a denim vest over a salmon-colored turtleneck sweater, and a pair of scuffed work boots, Richardson, whose inspections do occasionally lead to a company or a farm losing its certification, snooped from one end of the bakery to the other, and from floor to ceiling, at times jolly, at times serious, getting down on her hands and knees to peer under counters, running her hands over cooling racks ("What do you clean these with?"), flipping over 50-pound sacks of flour, and peering into mixing machines. Regulations required her to document that every ingredient in the bread met organic standards, following a paper trail that led all the way back to the mill where it was processed and the field where it was grown. It also required her to ascertain that the bakery maintained adequate standards of cleanliness and that there was no chance that food would be contaminated by mice, moths, flies, or other pests.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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