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Organic food labels don't always mean what you think

Organic food labels don’t always mean what you think

You probably think that if a food is labeled “organic,” it means it was produced with no toxic pesticides or antibiotics. That’s also what more than two-thirds of the people in a new survey (PDF) from the Consumer Reports National Research Center think. The good news is that’s generally true. The bad news is there are exceptions. The worse news is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program is twisting the process for setting those exceptions, threatening to erode the integrity of the organic seal, say Consumer Reports food safety experts.  

By law, organic foods cannot contain synthetic fertilizers, industrial pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, or artificial food ingredients. But the USDA maintains a list of exempted ingredients and once an ingredient gets on the list, it can be used for five years from the date of the exemption. At this week’s meeting of the the National Organic Standards Board, which is made up of 15 nongovernmental experts, exemptions up for discussion include the use of the antibiotic streptomycin on apples and pears, the amino acid methionine in poultry feed, and synthetic materials for aquaculture (before standards for organic fish have even been defined).

Read more about when it pays to buy organic and how to make sense of food labels. And see our Guide to Food Safety and Sustainability.

Such exemptions don’t match consumers’ impression of what organic means, according to our survey. Nearly 75 percent of people said they want as few artificial ingredients as possible to be approved for use in organic foods, and 84 percent think ingredients that are exempted should be removed from the list after five years.

But the review process to determine whether and when a substance should be taken off the list is weakening. “Some decision makers in the National Organic Program have overtly expressed a desire to grow the exemption list in order to grow the organic market,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. For example, under the new policy, an exempt material could be permitted indefinitely unless a two-thirds majority of the NOSB votes to remove it from the list. It also allows the USDA to keep exemptions for synthetic materials without the recommendation of the NOSB.

There’s already confusion, with some consumers believing the meaningless “natural” label has the same meaning as organic. We think organic standards should be something consumers can trust.

—Trisha Calvo

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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