This post was revised after publication where indicated to clarify material and correct some erroneous assertions, in response to a comment by Annie's CEO John Foraker, below.
On Monday the New York Times reported, as plenty have elsewhere, that the USDA is poised to allow 38 non-organically grown ingredients as exceptions in certified organic food when their organic counterparts are unavailable. [Addition:] "Organic, Inc." author Sam Fromartz, blogging over at Chews Wise, goes "deep-and-dirty" into USDA organic regulations to explain how up until now, a product can only be labeled organic if 95% of the ingredients are in fact organic; the remaining 5% could include non-organic ingredients as long as they're approved by the National Organic Standards Board and put on the so-called National List by the USDA. To make a long story short, organic certifiers were able to exercise some leeway in granting exceptions on an individual basis to ingredients under certain circumstances, but the USDA wants producers to persuade it that such ingredients deserve to be on the list or to stop using them, effective June 8.
Among the most objectionable items under consideration: conventionally grown hops for organic beer (thanks to whining from Anheuser-Busch, which says supply is too limited — or else doesn't want to pay the premium) and casings from the intestines of factory-farm pigs and cows to contain organically raised sausage meat.
That most of the rest of the other ingredients are "natural" colors and flavors used in processed food has not escaped skeptics. The reason that companies are asking for exceptions is that the organically grown supply of things like elderberry juice (for turning foods red or purple) falls far short of what Big Organic needs to meet skyrocketing demand.
Annatto, one of the ingredients on the USDA's list, provides an illuminating example of what's wrong with the motivations behind approving these exceptions.
Annatto is a natural food coloring derived from the reddish pulp surrounding the seed pods of Bixa orellana, also known as achiote, which grows in tropical zones. John Foraker, CEO of Annie’s Homegrown company — famous makers of boxed pasta products for kids — argued in his change-the-rules petition letter to the USDA that “Organic annatto is not readily available and does not deliver the same cheese color. Making orange colored macaroni and cheese is an important element of our offering. Without annatto, our macaroni-and-cheese products would be white” (as quoted in the Times; the USDA does not seem to have posted the comments it's received on this change, as it often does).
While I'm skeptical that conventional annatto can deliver a brighter hue than organic, that's not important here. What is: Annie's currently offers several certified organic versions of pasta shells with cheese — both white AND orange. The orange ones use annatto extract. The white ones don't. They are not "100% Certified Organic," but they get to use the organic seal because they
meet USDA met the USDA's then-requirements of being made with 95-100% organic ingredients. Annie's also sells a full line of "totally natural" mac-n-cheese, both white and orange; same difference.
Bernie the iconic Annie's rabbit actually talks on the company's blog about the annatto seed and offers this interesting comment: "And although we agree everyone should have a little more color in their lives, we must stand up for our beloved Organic Shells & WHITE Cheddar (aka Purple Box)…it’s [sic] deliciousness will prove that white, too, is just as acceptable in the world of mac ‘n cheese."
Guess Bernie the bunny didn't get copied on Foraker's memo to the USDA. White is apparently less desirable to consumers than the familiar orange color for mac-n-cheese.
Ethicurean readers may recall that in January 2007, Salon ran a rather funny, very snarky attack on Annie's Homegrown Macaroni & Cheese, titled "The Bunny vs. the Blue Box," ridiculing its health claims and telling parents that making their own was as fast and healthier. Annie's CEO Foraker attempted damage control in the comments section of that Salon article and elsewhere. On the Megnut blog, he wrote that:
[S]peaking of healthy, Annie’s has offered a certified organic line since 1998, not because we “felt the gentle wind of organics.” Rather, we honestly believe organic agriculture practices and products are better for us and better for the earth. We’re pretty proud of the fact that we’ve recently transitioned all of the pasta in our natural line to certified organic. We see this as a responsible step toward offering an even better product for consumers and for the environment.
While we would have liked to offer all organic ingredients from the start, the supply simply wasn’t available from the sources we value. We care a great deal about how we source our ingredients and so we choose family farmers as those who grow our wheat and produce our cheese.
What's that sound? The chimes of cognitive dissonance.
Organically grown annatto is in fact available, albeit much more expensive than the other kind. (Web searching found organic whole seeds from Indonesia to be $8 per pound; non-organic to be $2.62 per pound.) Perhaps Annie's uses so much annatto it would exhaust the world's organically grown supply if it tried. Acquired by the privately held, investor-controlled holding company Homegrown Naturals in 2005 for an undisclosed sum, Annie's does not publicize its revenues; BrandWeek cited 2005 sales as $45 million.
Annie's home page claims its products are "good for you and good for the planet" and that the company was "founded with the mission to support the environment and our communities." Yet here it is, joining Anheuser-Busch in asking for the easy way out.
If Foraker wants customers to believe his company walks its talk, Annie's had many other options. The company is certainly big enough to work on increasing the supply of its organic ingredients — perhaps paying for, or aiding with, the paperwork for the certification process, which small non-U.S. growers find daunting. Or, it could sell even more of its white, "just as acceptable" mac-n-cheese. Or it could continue to sell millions of boxes of its orange mac-n-cheese
under their current organic label, allowed for those made with 95-100% organic ingredients under the USDA's "Made with Organic Ingredients" label, which requires that 70% of a product's ingredients be organic and the rest can be non-organic agricultural ingredients.
[Paragraph revised] In general, the 38 additions to the National List seem like easy, cheesy ways out for processed-food companies to continue to profit off the higher prices consumers are willing to pay for food with the label without themselves paying higher prices for certain ingredients, or having to work to increase their supply. It reminds me somewhat of No Child Left Behind: not enough kids passing the standardized tests? Well, the tests are obviously just too hard — let's make them easier. It marks the start of a slippery slope for standards, the same one that in 2002 saw the USDA almost allow a Georgia poultry producer to market its chicken as organically produced, even though the birds ate conventional feed laced with antibiotics and pesticides. The reason for the exception? Organic feed cost the producer twice as much.
There's pretty much no stopping this change in the acceptable ingredients list now, although the Organic Consumer Association has a letter you can still send electronically. Nope, afraid I can only leave you with the usual advice: vote with your forks, for food from farmers or small companies you trust, who care about preserving the integrity of the practices and philosophy that built the organic label — not just getting the green-and-white seal itself.