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Organic decisions
Food activists face lobbyists in front of USDA board
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Eyes that watch the organic food industry were all on Savannah last week.

Why? The Desoto Hilton hosted the biannual meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, where several key decisions made will impact what food products get the organic stamp of approval.

The 15–member NOSB, composed of farmers, enviromentalists, scientists and retailers, submits organic policy recommendations to the United States Dept. of Agriculture and the National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances.

On the table for its fall meeting were petitions from corporate manufacturers to use synthetically–derived oils and preservatives in organic baby food and organic wines, along with continued reformation of animal welfare standards for organic meats.

Much of the multi–day agenda was devoted to listening to public comment, though those wishing to speak in front of the board had to sign up in advance and were limited to three minutes. Several familiar faces from the Southeast African American Farmers Organic Network spoke Tuesday morning, including Helen Fields of John’s Island, SC.

“I’m here because I want to see the board continue with its efforts in education and its cost–sharing program,” said Fields, referring to the USDA’s efforts to offset the financial burdens of farmers transitioning to organic growing methods.

While farmer support was a passionate topic among the commenters, the hottest issues were the petitions.

Representatives and paid consultants from Dean Foods, a $12 billion company that includes Horizon milk, Morningstar Foods and Silk soy products, spent much of Thursday making a case for allowing the use of Martek Biosciences Corporation’s DHA Omega–3 and ARA Omega–6 oils as nutritional additives in organic milk and baby food.

According to the Cornucopia Institute (TCI), an influential organic farmer watchdog group based in Wisconsin, those oils may contain genetically–modified ingredients (GMOs) and are extracted using hexane as a solvent, two factors which should exclude them from organic certification.

TCI co–founder Mark Kastel rolled a cart through the room containing 15,000 signatures opposing the Martek petition as evidence of that the public doesn’t consider Martek oils organic - and neither should the board.

“Are you defending the integrity of the organic label?” he asked. “Or are you defending the interest of corporate agribusiness?”

NOSB member Jay Feldman, who fills one of the board’s three environmentalist slots, expressed grave concern about the additives, saying the science was premature and that the approving Martek’s method of extraction “opens the barn door” to unknown materials that could end up with a USDA organic label.

“We have not done our due diligence on this,” argued Feldman. “And that’s what people expect when they see the seal: That we’re in front of the problems, not in back of them.”

In spite of his protests, the board voted to classify the Martek oils as “non–synthetic” and include them on the list of approved substances, a vote that disappointed consumer advocates. (The board did uphold the ban on hexane–extracted additives in organic food.)

“It’s a case of ignoring consumer opinion and caving to market pressure,” sighed Will Fantle, TCI’s research director and co–founder, after Friday’s vote. “But that’s what happens when half the board is trying to liberalize what ‘organic’ means for their bosses.”

Indeed, several members of the NOSB are currently or have been in the past employed by the organic divisions of huge food manufacturers, including Campbell’s Soup and General Mills, the parent company of organic labels Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen.

This has spawned accusations from grassroots organizations that corporations are “greenwashing” the organic label in order to increase profits. It’s a battle that all came down to a mid–sized hotel ballroom in Savannah – for this round, anyway.

Also voted upon was whether wine made from organically–grown grapes with added sulfur dioxide should bear the organic seal. Sulfur dioxide, or “sulfites,” is a ubiquitous wine–making preservative as well as a common allergen. Current USDA standards do not allow more than 10 parts per million of sulfites in organic wine.

The board heard from numerous wine industry experts during public comment. Some argued that organic wine cannot be made without sulfites; others made the case for upholding the current standard, including Jonathan Frey, founder of the renowned Frey Vineyards in Mendocino County, CA, who has been producing organic wine without sulfites for 30 years.

“To avoid confusion and build trust in consumers, the USDA seal should not appear on wine that has added sulfur dioxide,” pleaded Frey during Tuesday’s public comment session.

At Friday’s vote, an impassioned debate arose whether the board was responsible for the allergic properties of sulfur dioxide. “‘Organic’ isn’t necessarily synonymous with an allergen–free zone,” pointed out NOSB chair Tracy Miedema. “Organic should be about agriculture, first and foremost.”

NOSB member Katrina Heinze saw the offering of USDA–labeled organic wines with or without sulfites as “an improvement in consumer choice.”

Other members countered that the additives are the concern, and that the USDA designation is the “best eco–label out there” to guide consumers to a product free of unnecessary ingredients. In the end, the motion was defeated, and wines with the USDA organic label will remain sulfate–free.

In their remaining votes, the board voted to defer its livestock management standards recommendations until its April meeting.

It did vote to increase the minimum living requirements for organic poultry from 1.5 square feet to two square feet per bird, a small concession for Will Fantle, who was leaving Savannah with six months of consumer activism to do before the next round of NOSB voting in 2012.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the board from the lobbyists, who represent the interest of watering down what ‘organic’ means,” said Fantle as folks began to put away their laptops. “That’s why we just have to keep working.”