Eric Organic

eric_org.gifFear my righteous wrath.

Marc sent me and Brian an article that was published Sunday, January 28, 2007 in the SF Chronicle) titled: “Will the term organic still mean anything when it’s adopted whole hog by behemoths such as Wal-Mart?” by Jake Whitney. I don’t know who Mr. Whitney is, but I’m sick of being lectured about the sanctity of organic food by people who exhibit little understanding about what organic means, or who don’t care about what organic means because it gets in the way of taking a jab at “The Man.” Writers like Mr. Whitney do more to confuse and upset organic consumers than Wal-Mart, in my humble opinion.

Yes, I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan, and I think that he has done a lot to call attention to how ALL of our food (not just organic) is made and why we should pay attention to this. Unfortunately not everyone is as smart as Mr. Pollan (although I have a few quibbles with his latest book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and most writers don’t do the amount of research Pollan does. In an attempt to make similar points that Pollan makes, other writers mostly skip that bothersome research phase and jump right up on the soap box to shout out their points: The Man is BAD! Corporations are EVIL! Save poor little Organic from being kidnapped in the middle of the night and tortured! They are helped up onto that soap box by organizations (who are always ready to supply a supporting quote) who happen to raise money (ahem! solicit donations) from people who are scared by this kind of talk.

I know you guys all like good food, and many of you support the idea of organic agriculture. I’m also aware that most consumers only have a vague idea about what “organic” means, especially As something of an “expert” in the organic arena (I’ve been the president of the board of Maine’s local organic certification agency, MOFGA Certification Services, LLC — MCS) I’m often dismayed when I read reports in the national media about the state of organic, and the meaning of the term, because they often get it wrong. And this article is one of the worst of its kind.

As with many “The Sky Is Falling” articles, this one contains glaring factual errors used to support its thesis that organic standards are being compromised by big businesses.

  • “…legalized, for the first time, the use of synthetic substances…” Synthetic substances have been allowed for use in processing and post-harvest handling of organic foods since the existing version of the National Organic Program (NOP) rules were approved by Congress — I refer to section 205.605(b) of the rules, which includes synthetic ingredients such as ammonium bicarbonate (baking powder), sulfur dioxide (in wine), ethylene, ozone, pectin, and xanthan gum.
  • Clandestine attempts to amend the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, which contains the NOP rule, have been made from the very beginning. This is nothing new, but so far none of these attempts have succeeded. And not all are made by “big business” — Alaska senator Ted Stevens seems determined to get Alaskan caught wild-grown seafood labeled as “organic.”
  • On the other side of the argument, I’ve met Arthur Harvey and I can assure you that he has an agenda of his own — he wants the government to get OUT of the business of describing what “organic” means. I can sympathize with some of his ideas in this area, but I also believe that his actions are not about reforming the NOP; his actions are about destroying it.
  • I have also met Jim Riddle, and he is a good guy, a stand-up midwestern academic who understands the nuances of the issues Mr. Whitney is attempting to write about. However, Whitney has obviously cherry picked Riddles quotes and organized them to sound like Riddle is moving toward supporting Mr. Whitney’s claims, although without actually saying that. When I was in high school, I learned that this was a favorite device of “yellow journalism.” Mr. Whitney also strategically arranges the quotes from Brian Baker of OMRI, another reasonable guy.
  • “The USDA is currently allowing more than 600 of these [food contact substances] in the processing of organic foods…” Pure bullshit. The USDA doesn’t “allow” anything to do with what goes into processing organic food. The USDA is the steward of the NOP rules, which are CREATED BY CONGRESS, NO ONE ELSE. The USDA’s role is ONLY to accredit the many organic certification agencies that are empowered to approve the use of the term “organic” based ONLY on the NOP rule. If it’s not in the rule, then it’s not allowed. Any certification agency that allows substances not currently in the rule to be used in food processing risk having their accreditation revoked.
  • “Wal-Mart [was] ‘cheapening the value of the organic label’ by sourcing most of its products from ‘industrial-scale factory farms and Third World countries,’ but also — on multiple occasions and in multiple stores — labeling non-organic food as organic with misleading in-store signs.” “Cheapening” is in the eye of the beholder, and many self-proclaimed “founders” of the organic movement insist that the word organic means more than how it is defined in the NOP rule, and they act as self-appointed gatekeepers of the organic club. Wal-Mart has no chance of ever getting past the velvet ropes in that case. However, if Wal-Mart sells products from USDA certified organic farms (no matter how big or how foreign), then they are selling organic food just like Real Food, Whole Foods, and the Belfast Coop does (all of whom buy from industrial organic farms and from foreign organic farms, by-the-way). Also, if Wal-Mart can be shown to be mislabeling their products as organic, they are liable to a $10,000 fine PER INCIDENT. I highly doubt whether even Wal-Mart would be doing this as a standard practice, which Mr. Whitney actually admits after making his sensational ‘cheapening’ claim.
  • “Horizon Organic (owned by Dean Foods) and Aurora Dairy, both of which have been accused of exploiting ambiguities in the organic standards to confine thousands of cows in feedlot-like conditions with little time spent grazing on pasture.” Actually almost EVERY organic dairy could be said to be “exploiting ambiguities in the organic standards” because it’s a subjective call. How does he define “feedlot-like conditions”? How much is “little time spent on grazing”? Whitney is preying on our worst fears without offering any proof. I would bet that he has NEVER visited a Horizon dairy farm (I’ve visited plenty). MCS interprets section 205.239(a)2 to say that “pasture must provide a significant portion of the feed during the pasture season” (emphasis mine), and some might claim that MCS is “exploiting ambiguities” by being tougher than is required by the NOP… And regarding “feedlot-like conditions”, the NOP rule is more clear (section 205.239(a)1): “…must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including: access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment.” I know it’s boring and difficult to have to read the NOP rules before you condemn them, but c’mon.
  • “How organic can food really be that is shipped halfway around the world?” I agree with CCOF‘s Peggy Miars that current NOP rules are strict enough despite the ambiguities (which organizations like CCOF and MOFGA are working hard to resolve). Meanwhile, nothing in the NOP rule addresses transport of organic products, or workers rights, or preservation of small farms. This is why MOFGA (and many other organic advocates) works SEPARATELY on all of these issues; we don’t try to pretend that “organic” now means anything more than what the NOP rule defines no matter how many newspaper reporters or interest groups tell us we should…

Heck, it doesn’t take a big business to “compromise” organic standards — MOFGA’s Certification Service has just dealt with a family farm that sold conventional products that they bought through wholesale distributors that they claimed were organic and they grew themselves. This is why organic operations must renew their certification each year, which includes an inspection of their operations, INCLUDING an audit of their record keeping. When their application updates and their inspection results don’t make sense, the questions are investigated. When investigations uncover “non-compliance” issues (using the actual USDA terminology), steps are taken either to get them to comply with the rules, surrender their certification, or have it revoked.

I think most consumers understand that if they go to the Marin farmers market, they are more likely to buy food directly from the people who grew it; likewise, when they go to Wal-Mart (or Whole Foods for that matter) they’re more likely to buy food from large businesses that can ship food by the semi-trailer and put it in pretty packages. Duh. Meanwhile idealists would rather throw fire bombs at the NOP rules than read them, sowing more confusion and alarm in a system that has actually worked well so far, in my opinion. I hope that after reading my response that you will approach future articles of this ilk with more than a pinch of skepticism.


6 thoughts on “Eric Organic

  1. The tag-line on the article says: Jake Whitney is a freelance writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Republic, Editor & Publisher and New York Magazine.
    He doesn’t provide a direct email address as the Chronicle writers do, so I suggest you send a link to this reaction to the Chronicle Food Editor, Michael Bauer,

    And thanks for the education. I am more informed than most, but not as informed as many on this subject. I’m not going to read the NOP, so I rely on you and Brian and Michael Pollan.
    Meanwhile, I stand by the comment in my email forwarding that article: Rule 1. Don’t buy anything, ever, at Wal-Mart.
    Maybe there should be 2 levels of organic. Certified and Sort-of.
    I didn’t have room to add, like the Sears Catalog used to say, “Good, Better, Best.”


  2. Right on, Farmer E. The bottom line is that organics is, like many other things, about trust. You have to trust that the person (or mega-comglomerate) selling you the thing is really selling you something organic. You therefore also have to trust that the certifying agency that certified that product did its job to ensure that the product was, to the best of their knowledge, produced according to the organic guidelines. Is that an iron-clad guarantee? Of course not. But the way the system is currently set up, it’s still a pretty good bet. If some schmoe is buying industrially produced carrots or sweetcorn by the ton from Safeway’s distributor and then selling them to you as organic and you believe him because the carrots are knobby and unwashed and the corn is full of earworms, that’s because you trusted him. But the system is ultimately set up so that he’ll get caught eventually and also, if you shop around enough, you’ll be able to pick out the real from the posers. And I believe that it’s set up so that a good 90% of what is sold as organic is actually organic. Just like 90% of people on welfare really need it and 90% of the used cars that you buy (from their owners, of course) are in decent shape. The other 10% are just a fact of life in a free society.

    The other bottom line is that synthetic pectin or not, organic (whether Wal-Mart organic or local farmer’s market) means that fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers are being manufactured and poured onto the land. Even if “only” 90% of labeled organic stuff is really organic, that’s still a lot of reduction in chemical inputs and that’s a good thing, whether that land is in your community or in some foreign, migrant-laborer’s cousin’s community. So give it up for organics. A lot of people say to me (because I buy almost everything I can possibly buy organic) “Yeah, but there’s no proof that organic food is better for you than normal (i.e. industrially produced) food.” That’s not the point. The point is the one I just made: Fewer chemicals spread on the land. That will not only be good for “you” in the long run, but definitely will be better for the people who are actually producing the stuff and also for every link on the food chain where it’s produced. I’m only going to say this once more: Give it up for organics.

    Clearly, as organics become a larger and larger part of the food market, shady moneygrubbers are going to buy off shady politicians to make shady laws that compromise the USDA organic standards. Here’s where it’s best to try to buy local, from people who are less likely to be compromised and whose trustworthiness is easier to gauge. A larger and larger portion of the market won by organics is not a bad thing. It just brings more challenges, like anything else that starts small and eventually reaches the mainstream.

    Okay, one more time, all together: Give it up for organics.

    N.B. This reply formulated while sipping an organic (and quite tasty) Vin de Pays de l’Hérault. (Would it break yer heart to know it cost me less than four bucks?)


  3. As I have just started reading and studying some of the issues regarding industrial vs organic food production, I am far from expert. But what seems to be the bigger issue is “sustainability” of the earth and not the purity of the word organic. If small amounts of safe and beneficial synthetics can help allow wide distribution and still result in an earth friendly sustainability, then isn’t that the ultimate goal – maximum safety, health and sustainability?


  4. This issue just came up at MOFGA’s most recent board meeting in the context of: “Since USDA Organic no longer addresses social justice and other lifestyle issues that we feel are important, is there a way for MOFGA to develop some new ‘stamp of approval’ for items that are not only organic, but also grown with fairly paid labor and not trucked too many miles to my table? The model offered for discussion has been developed in New York called the Farmer’s Pledge, and MOFGA has decided to discuss how we can join in this new effort.

    For the record, I don’t shop at Wal-Mart either, but in this case they are not the problem (yet…).


  5. Just curious how the buy local movement feels about giving up most fresh vegetables for the better part of the year up here in Maine?

    I’m actually all for local – we buy from a local farm stand frequently and we buy local produce when available in the local groceries. I’m just wondering how the die-hard buy local people see this issue. Particularly since the nutritionists keep telling us how we need to eat more “fresh” fruits and vegetables.


  6. Have you heard about Backyard Beauties from Madison, ME? Besides this recent introduction of Maine grown(!) tomatoes available through the winter, there are many farmers that now specialize in growing and selling fresh vegetables through the winter, including: lettuce, spinach, and other greens, carrots, radishes, turnips, and herbs. In addition, other farms have been building the infrastructure to offer storage crops besides potatoes — beets, cabbage, turnips, squash, onions, garlic, parsnips, apples — through the winter. That combo, plus a wealth of grains for bread and pasta, dry beans, dairy products, wines and hard cider and potato vodka (Cold River in Freeport), fermented and preserved foods, and all kinds of meat and seafood (frozen and fresh) means that the very serious “locovore” can eat pretty well (and with a nutritionist’s full blessing) through the period of time when you don’t have to mow your lawn in Maine.


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