Organic food labels don't always mean what you think

Consumers want a strict definition of organic, Consumer Reports' survey finds

Last updated: May 02, 2014 04:30 PM

Update: See below for latest organic vote victory for consumers.

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).

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.

Update: One of the most important votes at this week’s National Organic Standards Board meeting dealt with the use of streptomycin in organic apple and pear production to treat fire blight. The board had received a petition to extend the antibiotic’s exemption period, set to end in October 2014, until 2017. During public testimony, Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, urged the Board to allow streptomycin’s exemption to expire on schedule. She presented results from our survey showing that nearly nine out of 10 consumers said they believed antibiotics should not be used in organic crop production.

In a major victory for consumers, the board rejected the petition. Combined with the board's vote last year to end the use of tetracycline on the same crops, any antibiotic use in organic fruit production will now be prohibited.

The NOSB is often under a lot of pressure from industry groups to weaken the organic standards, and votes can go either way. In this case, board members listened to the concerns of the public and the medical community about the increasing effects of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on public health. The result is a vote that strengthens the organic standards, by ensuring that no antibiotics will be allowed in organic orchards by the end of this year.  We urge the USDA to finance research to help growers continue to find workable alternative treatments for fire blight that are compatible with organic production.

—Trisha Calvo

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Health News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more