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Food makers in limbo over `organic' labeling

June 14, 2007|Scott J. Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Anheuser-Busch's organic beers have become fully organic -- at least for now.

The nation's largest brewer said Wednesday that because of inaction on proposed regulations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it had started using 100% organic hops in its two beers that carry the "USDA Organic" seal. Previously, less than 10% of the beers' hops were organic.

"We have now begun brewing our nationally available organic beers with 100% organic hops, although at this time we have a limited amount of organic hops available," Doug Muhleman, vice president of brewing operations for Anheuser-Busch, said.

Food makers have been awaiting USDA approval of a list of 38 nonorganic ingredients, including hops, that could be allowed in organic products. Permission to use some nonorganic ingredients in organic foods expired Saturday, leaving many organic food makers uncertain on what to do.

"Since the deadline passed, Anheuser-Busch has not received any communications from the USDA regarding the reason for the delay," Muhleman said.

George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley Family of Farms in LaFarge, Wis., said Tuesday that he had organic sausage and bacon that could spoil unless the USDA acts soon.

"It's so grossly unfair, and it's just like we got dropped off a cliff," Siemon said. "We don't know what's going on."

The USDA's National Organic Program sent an e-mail to its certifying agents Friday, emphasizing that organic foods produced after that day could not use nonorganic ingredients that had previously been allowed under a misinterpretation of federal law.

"There is no provision for a grace period for this requirement; all products must be in compliance," said the e-mail from Mark A. Bradley, associate deputy administrator.

Regarding the ingredients under review, Bradley said, "We are doing our best to work these materials through the regulatory process as quickly as possible."

Although most organic food manufacturers have supported the move to allow use of the 38 ingredients, many consumers have protested what they perceive as a watering down of the organic label. The National Organic Program received more than 1,000 complaints about the proposed rule during a one-week public comment period in May.

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.

Federal law requires products carrying the "USDA Organic" label to contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% can be nonorganic ingredients that have been placed on the USDA National List, provided that organic equivalents are not commercially available or available in sufficient quantity.

Only five items are on the National List: corn starch, water-extracted gums, kelp, unbleached lecithin and pectin. Besides hops, the 38 ingredients being considered for the list include 19 food colorings, two starches, casings for sausages, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin, celery powder, dill weed oil, frozen lemongrass and a "bulking agent" and sweetener known as fructooligosaccharides.

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scott.wilson@latimes.com

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