Three years ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture employees determined that synthetic additives in organic baby formula violated federal standards and should be banned from products carrying the federal organic label. Today those same additives, purported to boost brainpower and vision, can be found in 90% of organic baby formula.
The government's about-face came after a USDA program manager was lobbied by the formula makers and overruled her staff. That decision and others by a handful of USDA employees, along with an advisory board's approval of a growing list of non-organic ingredients, have helped companies secure a coveted green-and-white "USDA Organic" seal for their products.
Grated organic cheese, for example, contains wood starch to prevent clumping. Organic beer can be made from non-organic hops.
Relaxed federal standards -- and a surge in consumer demand -- have helped the organics market become a $23-billion-a-year business, the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. Half of the nation's adults say they buy organic food often or sometimes, according to a survey last year by the Harvard School of Public Health.
But the USDA program's shortcomings mean that consumers, who oftentimes pay more for organic products, are not always getting what they expect: foods without pesticides and other chemicals, produced in environmentally friendly ways.
That has fueled debate over whether the federal program should be governed by a strict interpretation of organic or broadened to include more products by allowing trace elements of non-organic substances. The argument is not over whether the non-organics pose a health threat, but whether they weaken the integrity of the federal organic label.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has pledged to protect the label, even as he acknowledged the pressure to lower standards to certify more products as organic.
In response to complaints, the USDA inspector general's office has widened an investigation of whether products carrying the label meet national standards. The probe is also looking into the department's oversight of private certifiers hired by farmers and food producers to inspect products and determine whether they can use the label.
Some consumer groups and members of Congress worry that the program's lax standards are undermining the federal program and the law itself.
"It will unravel everything we've done if the standards can no longer be trusted," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, (D-Vt.), who sponsored the federal organics legislation. "If we don't protect the brand, the organic label, the program is finished. It could disappear overnight."
Congress adopted the organics law after farmers and consumers demanded uniform standards for produce, dairy and meat. The law banned synthetics, pesticides and genetic engineering from foods that would bear a federal organic label. It also required annual testing for pesticides. And it was aimed at preventing producers from falsely claiming their foods were organic.
The USDA created the National Organic Program in 2002 to implement the law. But by then, major food companies had bought up most small, independent organic companies. Kraft Foods, for example, owns Boca Foods. Kellogg Co. owns Morningstar Farms, and Coca-Cola Co. owns 40% of Honest Tea, maker of the organic beverage favored by President Obama.
That corporate firepower has added to pressure on the government to expand the definition of what is organic, in part because processed foods offered by big industry often require ingredients, additives or processing agents that either do not exist in organic form or are not available in large enough quantities for mass production.
Under the original organics law, 5% of a USDA-certified organic product can consist of non-organic substances, provided they are approved by the National Organic Standards Board. That list has grown from 77 to 245 substances since it was created in 2002. Companies must appeal to the board every five years to keep a substance on the list, explaining why an organic alternative has not been found. The goal was to shrink the list over time, but only one item has been removed so far.
The original law's mandate for annual pesticide testing was also never implemented -- the agency left that optional.