Organic doesn’t always mean natural

Survey: Most Americans wrong about what’s in organic food

By Tara Bannow / The Bulletin / @tarabannow

Organic: What we believe

4 out of 5 Americans believe no toxic pesticides are used.

2 out of 3 Americans believe no antibiotics are used.

Organic: What is OK

About 200 synthetic and nonorganic substances. The following terms may sound scary, and though they’re not necessarily “bad,” people still might be surprised that they may be considered OK to produce foods labeled “organic”:

• Additives

• Antibiotics

• Genetically modified foods

• Herbicides

• Insecticides

• Sedatives

• Solvents

Sources: Consumer Reports survey, Bulletin reporting

In the three decades Debbie Sloan has owned the health foods store Nature’s in Bend, her customers have relied on her for organic food, which they believe is better for their bodies and for the environment.

“I think the whole organic movement now has snowballed into, ‘Leave our food alone, let us eat natural,’” she said. “Let us be healthy, let the earth be healthy, and let our children be healthy.”

But even Sloan, whose entire produce section is organic, wasn’t aware of the long list of synthetic substances that are allowed in organic food production, including herbicides, which can be used in organic farm maintenance and on ornamental crops.

“Herbicides should never be used in organics, in my opinion,” she said. “I’m shocked.”

A March Consumer Reports survey highlighted the dichotomy between what consumers believe and expect of organic food and what’s actually the case. According to the survey, 81 percent of Americans believe no toxic pesticides were used in the production of organic produce, and 91 percent believe they shouldn’t be. Another 66 percent believe no antibiotics were used in organic food production, and 86 percent say they shouldn’t be. Antibiotics are allowed, although they’re being phased out this year.

About 200 synthetic and nonorganic substances can be used in organic food production, including Butorphanol, a synthetic opioid that’s used on livestock as a sedative, sodium carbonate peroxyhydrate as a herbicide, boric acid as an insecticide (no direct contact with crops, however), and parasiticides to kill parasites that threaten dairy or breeding animals, among others.

“I would say the general public, they’re probably unaware of many of these materials that are allowed,” said Will Fantle, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic watchdog group.

Another 84 percent of people who took Consumer Reports’ survey said the use of artificial ingredients in organic foods should be discontinued, if not reviewed, after five years.

In reality, that’s much easier said than done. The synthetic substances used in organic production are approved because no organic alternatives exist that would perform the same function. To get substances approved, advocates must prove their necessity and that they won’t harm human health or the environment.

USDA steps in

Regulating which substances can and cannot be used to make organic foods has long highlighted the tension between balancing agricultural operations with consumers’ demand for all-natural products.

The issue came to a head last week when the board that governs those substances — the National Organic Standards Board, comprised of farmers, environmentalists, consumer advocates and others — held its biannual meeting in Texas. Fantle said it was the most contentious standards board meeting he’s ever seen.

“There was a protest at the very beginning of the meeting by a citizens group, the Organic Consumers Association,” he said. “They stopped the meeting for a half-hour or so while procedure was being debated. Somebody was arrested and pulled out of the room.”

The ruckus wasn’t totally unexpected. Seven months before last week’s meeting, the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed the way the NOSB regulates substances, including making it more difficult to ban synthetic substances once they’re given the temporary OK to be used. Critics argue the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t have the authority to strip the NOSB of its powers, which were delegated by Congress in 1990.

In Fantle’s opinion, the move by the USDA was a “power grab” that happened because the NOSB has granted fewer substance approvals as of late, and large producers who wanted to use said substances were getting frustrated.

“The organic sector is a $30 billion-plus food sector,” he said. “There’s a lot of money in it, and a lot of the big companies involved in it are typically interested in and driven by growth.”

Natalie Reitman-White, director of sustainability and trade advocacy for Organically Grown Co., a Eugene-based wholesale organic distributor, said she understands both sides of the argument. The simple fact that so much open debate goes into regulating organics should instill trust in the organic label, she said.

“Consumers, when they go to the grocery store, can say, ‘I’m picking up this product and I know there’s been rigorous conversation about what is and isn’t allowed in this product and that it’s under constant review,’” she said.

No more antibiotics

For more than a decade, organic apple and pear growers have been allowed to use antibiotics on their trees to control fire blight, a contagious bacterial disease spread by bees and rain that can devastate orchards.

This is the last season farmers will be able to use antibiotics, however, as the two permitted varieties, streptomycin and tetracycline, will be banned after October.

The NOSB at its meeting last week denied requests to extend streptomycin’s use to 2017. Producers argued alternatives haven’t yet been developed, but opponents say the use of antibiotics could enhance antibiotic resistance in humans, a point the scientific community is divided on.

Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center, said organic industry leaders have disregarded the potential for increased antibiotic resistance in humans.

“The blight itself that they’re trying to treat is becoming resistant to it,” she said.

Antibiotics are a common and effective method for controlling fire blight, which has been known to hit Oregon orchards hard, Reitman-White said.

“It can be a really challenging problem in the Northwest if it is a wet spring,” she said.

Oregon State University and Washington State University researchers are studying potential alternatives to antibiotics and have found a yeast-based product and water-soluble copper products to be effective in protecting trees against fire blight.

OSU plant pathologist Ken Johnson said in a news release that growers should try the alternatives this year so they’re better prepared when antibiotics aren’t available next year. Johnson didn’t return a request for comment.

Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit that’s responsible for certifying producers as organic, said time will tell what the impact will be of removing antibiotics from orchards.

“I think that particular disease is very devastating,” he said. “It won’t just wipe out a particular season’s crop, but it can wipe out a whole orchard if it goes untreated or unaddressed.”

Substances scrutinized

Some have grown disillusioned with how organics are regulated in the U.S.

Rangan, who’s studied the process for 15 years, said the NOSB doesn’t always perform thorough scientific reviews of the substances it allows in organic food production. Often the board members simply make a few phone calls or assumptions about their health impact, she said.

Some of the products approved have come under scrutiny from consumer advocacy groups.

The Cornucopia Institute has targeted carrageenans, polysaccharides made from seaweed used for their thickening properties. They’re commonly found in organic chocolate milk and liquid baby formula. Fantle said not only are they unnecessary (people could just shake the products to mix them), but carrageenans also are known to cause inflammation in the intestinal tract, which can be especially hard on infants.

Fantle’s group also has concerns about docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid commonly added to milk and baby formula that’s believed to improve cognitive function.

Fantle said although he believes DHA can be obtained from natural sources like eggs, it’s harvested from algae that’s likely fed genetically modified corn and extracted using solvents prohibited in organic food production.

Until September, the NOSB reviewed the substances it allowed every five years and a two-thirds majority vote was required to keep the substance in use. Under the changes the USDA made, however, a two-thirds vote is now required to ban the substance, thereby making it more difficult to ban substances.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, protested the change in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. They argued the change was made without going through the proper public channels and it conflicts with the 1990 law they authored creating the NOSB.

“We are extremely concerned by this significant and unwarranted policy change,” Leahy and DeFazio wrote. “It is counter to the key principals of public involvement and oversight in the organic certification process as well as adhering to the highest standards possible for organic food production.”

The purpose of the five-year window is to give researchers time to develop organic alternatives to the synthetic substances.

If it’s harder to ban substances once they’ve been allowed temporarily, Rangan said those alternatives will be slower coming.

“It’s the whole system that’s not working,” she said. “Things stay on in perpetuity so that natural alternatives don’t get developed. That’s a problem.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0304,

tbannow@bendbulletin.com