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What is `organic'? USDA still isn't sure

The agency weighs new ingredients it may allow in certified food.

June 09, 2007|Scott J. Wilson | Times Staff Writer

With the "USDA organic" seal stamped on its label, Anheuser-Busch calls its Wild Hop Lager "the perfect organic experience."

"In today's world of artificial flavors, preservatives and factory farming, knowing what goes into what you eat and drink can just about drive you crazy," the Wild Hop website says. "That's why we have decided to go back to basics and do things the way they were meant to be ... naturally."

But many beer drinkers may not know that Anheuser-Busch has the organic blessing from federal regulators even though Wild Hop Lager uses hops grown with chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides.

A deadline of midnight Friday to come up with a new list of nonorganic ingredients allowed in USDA-certified organic products passed without action from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leaving uncertain whether some foods currently labeled "USDA organic" would continue to be produced.

The agency is considering a list of 38 nonorganic ingredients that will be permitted in organic foods. Because of the broad uses of these ingredients -- as colorings and flavorings, for example -- almost any type of manufactured organic food could be affected, including cereal, sausage, bread and beer.

Organic food advocates have fought to block approval of some or all of the proposed ingredients, saying consumers would be misled.

"This proposal is blatant catering to powerful industry players who want the benefits of labeling their products 'USDA organic' without doing the work to source organic materials," said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Assn. of Finland, Minn., a nonprofit group that boasts 850,000 members.

USDA spokeswoman Joan Shaffer declined to comment on the plan.

Food manufacturers said this week that they were hoping the agency would approve the rules by Friday to continue labeling their products as organic.

A federal judge had given the USDA until midnight Friday to name the nonorganic ingredients it would allow in organic foods, but the agency did not release its final list by the end of the day.

"They probably don't know what to do" Cummins said. "On the other hand, it's hard to believe they're going to make people change their labels, although that's what they should do."

Demand for organic food in the U.S. is booming as consumers seek products that are more healthful and friendlier to the environment. Sales have more than doubled in the last five years, reaching $16.9 billion last year, according to the Organic Trade Assn. in Greenfield, Mass., which represents small and large food producers.

But with big companies entering what was formerly a mom-and-pop industry, new questions have arisen about what exactly goes into organic food. For food to be called organic, it must be grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Animals must be raised without antibiotics and growth hormones and given some access to the outdoors.

Many nonorganic ingredients, including hops, are already being used in organic products, thanks to a USDA interpretation of the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990. In 2005, a federal judge disagreed with how the USDA was applying the law and gave the agency two years to revise its rules.

Organic food supporters had hoped that the USDA would allow only a small number of substances, but were dismayed last month when the agency released the proposed list of 38 ingredients.

"Adding 38 new ingredients is not just a concession by the USDA, it is a major blow to the organic movement in the U.S. because it would erode consumer confidence in organic standards," said Carl Chamberlain, a research assistant with the Pesticide Education Project in Raleigh, N.C.

In addition to hops, the list includes 19 food colorings, two starches, casings for sausages and hot dogs, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin and a host of obscure ingredients (one, for instance, is a "bulking agent" and sweetener with the tongue-twisting name of fructooligosaccharides).

Under the agency's proposal, as much as 5% of a food product could be made with these ingredients and still get the "USDA organic" seal. Hops, though a major component of beer's flavor, are less than 5% of the final product because the beverage is mostly water.

Sales of organic beer, though still a small portion of total beer sales, have been growing even faster than overall organic food sales. They reached $19 million in 2005, a 40% increase over the previous year (2006 figures are not yet available).

Trying to get a share of the market for green products, Anheuser-Busch introduced two organic beers in September, and soon pitched them in fliers to wholesalers.

"Environmentally conscious consumers are looking for certified organic products, including beer, the fastest-growing organic beverage," the pitch said. "Capitalize on this growing market with Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Pale Ale."

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