425253313 27c01a9359 m If you subscribe to the Organic Consumers Association’s newsletters, you know that organic standards have been under attack for quite a while, with big companies trying to bend and stretch the laws to include all manner of non-organic ingredients under the organics label. That fight now seems to be coming to a head. The Washington Post reports that the integrity of the USDA organic label’s coming under question, pointing out the many ways organic standards have been watered down during — you guessed it — the Bush administration.

The root of the problem’s a common one we see in pretty much any environmental issue: Powerful multinational corporations are pushing to weaken standards, and government officials are too often at these companies’ beck and call.

Barbara Robinson’s the government official embroiled at the center of this controversy. This deputy USDA administrator’s been overruling staff decisions and issuing directives that favor big corporations, “without consulting experts, certifiers or the board” — and seems happy to continue doing so despite the fact that she had to apologize after a couple of her decisions — including allowing farmers to feed organic livestock non-organic fishmeal that can contain mercury and PCBs — got overruled, forcing her to apologize.

In fact, Robinson has said the federal program’s main purpose is to “grow the industry,” according to The Washington Post. It seems Robinson’s more interested in helping big corporations use the organics label to greenwash their products than in preserving the integrity of the organic label — and this industry-friendly attitude can be seen in the way organic standards have been changed:

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 a product carrying the federal organic label. Today the same additives, purported to boost brainpower and vision, can be found in 90 percent of organic baby formula…. Under the original organics law, 5 percent 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.
Now for the good news: Things are looking up under the Obama administration which has promised to tighten enforcement of organic standards and whose proposed budget “has doubled resources devoted to organics and installed USDA leaders who support change.”

What can you do now? Get educated on the latest organic-related news by visiting Organic Consumers Association’s website — a site that can be a tad oversensationalistic at times, but nonetheless serves as an important educational resource.

And to put your money where your mouth is, consider avoiding organics products from big companies like Kraft and Dole that are part of the Organic Trade Association, which is actively lobbying to weaken organic standards. Here’s a handy chart of what organic companies are owned by big corporations to help you out.

Photo: Pete Prodoehl

Changing organic standards
The USDA has allowed big corporations to add more and more non-organic substances to organic certified products.