After recently learning that USDA approved a final rule (at least until October 21, 2014) allowing organic apple and pear growers to use antibiotics when “natural methods are insufficient to address critical issues of production”, it made me wonder what other loopholes the USDA has created for the farmers to take advantage of. I did an analysis of the main food categories: meat, fruits and vegetables, and dairy and here is what I learned:
The amount of space or time outdoor and stocking density (crowding) are not regulated for any animals. Some producers have a small outside space added on the buildings that house tens of thousands of chickens, but only a few birds can access it. Access to outdoors, does not require that animals actually spend time outdoors which the free-range/free-roaming label implies. Access may be insufficient relative to the number of animals needing access. Outdoor access and stocking density (crowding) are not regulated. Chickens may be severely crowded and still labeled as “cage-free.”
Chickens raised for meat may be kept in continuous lighting, which does not allow rest and promotes excessive eating. This creates a sick and stressed animal that then gets labeled “organic“. Because the USDA does not permit the use of antibiotics sick animals may not receive needed treatment because they will lose this certification and will either be slaughtered for meat in their sick state or left to die.
Grass-fed is also a fun label full of loopholes. Cows may be confined, yet grass-fed. The label does not equate to grazing in a pasture. The label may include in small print “grain-finished,” indicating that the cow spent some time confined in feedlots.
In products from birds or pigs, the label “no antibiotics” is misleading as hormones are already outlawed.
At last, with the certified humane label, there is no requirement that pigs or chickens have access to the outdoors. Chickens may be debeaked and pigs may have their tails docked (cut off without painkillers) and still be labeled certified humane.
Fruits & Vegetables
Organic standards require that produce be grown from organic seeds, which means they are not genetically modified (GM), unless the organic seeds are not commercially available, then the conventional seeds are allowed (non-GM).
National regulations require that organic produce be grown for three years without synthetic pesticides. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries go through at least one rotation as non-fruiting plants, but virtually all plants — whether they will go on to produce conventional berries or organic ones — are treated with fumigants and other synthetic pesticides, including methyl bromide, a soil sterilizer and pesticide known to be depleting the ozone layer.
In 2007, the USDA released a list of 38 non-organic ingredients that could be allowed into organic packaged/processed foods and still be labeled 100% Organic. The list includes hops, which allows Anheuser-Busch to market its Wild Hop lager as “organic,” even though the hops are grown with pesticides.
The loopholes for fruits and vegetables are rather serious and because many people cannot buy organic all the time, the chart above will help you decide on when it is important to choose organic based on the pesticide content.
In 2010, the USDA closed a loophole in their organic regulations, so all organic dairy cattle must now spend much of the year grazing in open pastures, as opposed to feed lots or indoor feeding pens. There will also be an increasing the number of unannounced inspections conducted by certifiers without any prior notice. This is probably the biggest move towards transparency in the organic market. With all my research on the loopholes of dairy, I feel like I can honestly say that organic dairy regulation is the most transparent and trustworthy out of all other food categories.
Reading about these issues made me realize that most, if not all, big organic producers should be denied an organic label because most of them use loopholes. Specifically, Horizon (Dean Food’s), Cascadian Farms (General Mills), Kashi and GoLean (Kellogg’s)…
The following chart graphically focuses on the organic brands with ties to the top 30 food processors in North America and I would avoid them like the plague:
On a good note, the next two charts show major independently owned and private organic brands, respectively, which are more or less reputable:
Disreputable meat producers take advantage of the loopholes that allow inhumane practices; disreputable organic fruit and vegetable growers take advantage of the loopholes which allow for the use of pesticides; and only organic milk has become what it was supposed to be from the beginning. In my point of view, fruits and vegetables regulations are the most disturbing because of the frankness of the law which openly allows pesticide use and will still be labeled organic. What can we, Consumers, do? Many things!
- Buy from meat, fruits and vegetables from local farms where you can check the quality of organic produce or from private and independent farmers.
- Support pending state laws to label Genetically Engineered Foods or tell President Obama yourself.
- Sign up to Cornucopia Institute‘s and Organic Consumer’s Association website where you can keep track of new developments in the organic industry, support pending laws, and check the score cards on its organic for different produce.
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