This Week’s Article

In Matt, Tuesday's Article on October 26, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Looking Into the US Organic Label

Michael Pollan began his famous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma with a delineation of the anxiety one feels in a supermarket. Contradicting signals given to our basic, intractable to direct articulation, neuronal perception, or functioning. Conditioned air, lack of odor, flourescent glow, and quantum uniformity housing variety of life global in scope. Choice in aisles within rows. Dependent self-sufficiency. The self-awareness pinned on the anxiety in a safe place full of routine, no surprises, no attacks and the new layer of anxiety over feeling anxiety that you can not peg to any source. The total disconnect from source altogether that you know, nihil ex nihil, nothing can exist without. Then the added pressure of what to buy, what it says about you, how it affects places in the world you cannot see, that you feel even more remote from moving your cart around, between leaning and pushing, nonplussed in this humming reactor-like fog. And it’s here in this allegorical setting, staring down at a can of chilli, trying to know exactly what it is I’m buying, all of its components, their origins and sojourns, where I draw the voice for this article.

What the USDA Organic label means is that an agency operating outside the U.S. government inspected the product in accordance with the standards dictated by the USDA and has certified that it was grown by ‘organic’ methods and that you can be sure of this because the USDA has inspected the certifying agency and accredited it with its stamp of approval. What the label says about the content of the product itself is not that simple and actually requires a bit of research to understand; Which, even after having done so, does not really simplify the matter all that much unless you are already proficient in legalese as well as the sciences of agriculture. 


The origin of the label came in the Organic Food Productions Act (OFPA), signed by George H.W. Bush in 1990 as part of a much more comprehensive Farm Bill from that year.  It was sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy, D-VT, who is still a senator from that state (and a very senior senator in Congress).  The political momentum behind the Act came mostly from the larger certifying groups of the day such as the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), Quality Assurance International (QAI), California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the Organic Trade Association (OTA), and Oregon Tilth.  Before the USDA began regulating the organic industry by regulating marketing oversight, the role was filled by private enterprise.  Farmers, distributors, and consumers took it upon themselves to employ cooperatives like NOFA and the Soil Association (England) or companies like QAI to certify organic goods.  In the years following, the United States government was charged to take over stewardship of the market and consolidate claims under definitive terminology, all in order to promote interstate commerce.  The word ‘organic’ itself did not have a set legal definition until 1995, although it had very discernible meaning to those who sought it out.  Since OFPA 54 domestic and 44 foreign certifying agents have been accredited and monitored by the National Organic Program (NOP), a branch of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services Agency (AMS).

The creation of the NOP was the purpose of the act.  But the legislation also mandated that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) be assembled by the Secretary of Agriculture and that it include 15 outside professionals to represent varied interests in the organic food industry, like farmers, retailers, environmentalists, certifiers, and such, to serve limited, rotating terms during which they would decide the policies and standards to be instituted by the NOP.  In 2002 the NOSB finalized the label, which exists today in three forms: “Organic”-95-99%, “Made with Organic Ingredients”-70-94%, and “100% Organic”-would just be redundant.  The definition for ‘organic’ that they came up with is a bit convoluted but in sum stands for: a term used to identify something produced by methods that are benign to its ecological system and allow minimal pollutants to exist in it or on its surface; Which translates to no use of irradiation to eliminate pathogens, sewage sludge for fertilization, GMOs for promotion of desired traits (allegedly, though I could not find it mentioned in the Code of Federal Regulations), or avoidable synthetic substances, along with a trunk-load of requirements for the certification process, including 5 years of record keeping and a predetermined agreement between producer called an “Organic Plan”.  When it comes to what would then be ‘unavoidable substances’, they are included in the National List which would be more digestible in its own paragraph.

The National List is a compilation of substances that are either non-synthetic and prohibited or synthetic and/or non-organic substances and allowed, under the criteria that they (A) were evaluated and approved by the NOSB (B) essential to production (C) were not used to enhance flavor or color (D) had no adverse effect on the environment (E) were not available from natural or organic sources and (F) upheld other USDA safety and nutrition standards.  There are somewhere around 65 synthetic substances listed.  Many are given specified applications such as Ethanol, Isopropanol, or Peracetic acid as disinfectants and sanitizers, Copper sulfate only for particular rice cultivars, certain vaccinations and medicines monitored by a veterinarian, petroleum-based plastics for mulch… Some are just categories like Chlorine or Coppers or the EPA List 4- meaning a whole other list of things from another agency in a different department are just inserted, almost as a footnote.  So, in order to really be knowledgeable you would need a lawyer, a farmer, and a chemist; your only hope of getting a group like that together is if you pull a stool up to an imaginary bar inside an old, interchangeable joke.

And somehow, maybe simply from something like the order or pace with which these facts are gathered and digested, none of this does anything to make you feel like the real questions are even beginning to be answered, but rather that they are being inundated, exponentially with the need to first find other answers. 

The NOSB is the most realistic substitute for your own personal pocket organic panel and they operate far away from the grocery store.  So it seems, more so than anything else, silly to condense all that covered distance into the space between your eyes and a little green circular symbol they are scanning on a can of chilli in your hand.  At some point, you’re going to either put it back or drop it in the cart and push it down the aisle, much more slowly and deliberate than the growth and recession of industries.


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