The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave interim approval Friday to a controversial proposal to allow 38 nonorganic ingredients to be used in foods carrying the "USDA Organic" seal. But the agency also allowed an extra 60 days for public comment.
Manufacturers of organic foods had pushed for the change, arguing that the 38 items are minor ingredients in their products and are difficult to find in organic form. But consumers opposed to the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones in food production bombarded the USDA with more than 1,000 complaints last month.
"If the label says organic, everything in that food should be organic," wrote Kimberly Wilson of Austin, Texas, in one typical comment. "If they put something in the food that isn't organic, they shouldn't be able to call it organic. No exception."
The list approved Friday includes 19 food colorings, two starches, hops, sausage casings, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin, celery powder, dill weed oil, frozen lemongrass, Wakame seaweed, Turkish bay leaves and whey protein concentrate.
Manufacturers will be allowed to use conventionally grown versions of these ingredients in foods carrying the USDA seal, provided that they can't find organic equivalents and that nonorganics comprise no more than 5% of the product.
A wide range of organic food could be affected, including cereal, sausage, bread, beer, pasta, candy and soup mixes.
Supporters of the USDA rule change say that by allowing small amounts of nonorganic ingredients to be used, more products that are mostly organic can be developed. This encourages the development of organic farming, they say.
The rule change is "good news for consumers," said Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Assn., which represents food makers. "They have just been confused by people who put out messages that are bogus."
Haumann's group has been at odds with the Organic Consumers Assn., which has led the opposition to the USDA proposal. Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the consumers group, said Friday that the USDA was caving in to pressure from large food companies.
USDA officials "don't seem to care what the public wants," Cummins said. "They're just more interested in what's convenient for the big companies."
Organic food sales have more than doubled in the last five years, reaching $16.9 billion in the U.S. last year. The booming market has drawn in big food makers such as General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co. and Kraft Foods Inc. to what was formerly an industry of mostly mom-and-pop farms.
The USDA first issued its proposal May 15, followed by a seven-day public comment period that many people on both sides of the issue decried as far too short. As a result, the USDA announced Friday that it would allow 60 more days for its National Organic Program to collect public comments before issuing its final rule.
Under USDA regulations that define "organic," crops must be grown without chemical fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering or pesticides, while animals must be raised without antibiotics and growth hormones and given access to the outdoors.
The USDA has allowed small amounts of conventionally grown ingredients in products carrying its seal since its certification program started in 2002. But two years ago, a judge said the agency was misinterpreting the law and ordered it to tighten its approval system.
Two weeks ago, when the court-ordered deadline passed without USDA action, manufacturers found themselves suddenly barred from using nearly all nonorganic ingredients in products labeled as organic.
As of June 9, all nonorganic ingredients must be approved by the USDA and placed on its "National List" before they can be used in products carrying the agency's seal.
The 38 ingredients approved for the National List join five that were previously on the list: corn starch, water-extracted gums, kelp, unbleached lecithin and pectin.