Organic Watergate: Fed agencies allow GMOs in ‘USDA-certified organic’ - Cornucopia
The Cornucopia Institute
is challenging what it calls a “conspiracy” between corporate
agribusiness interests and the USDA that has increasingly facilitated
the use of questionable synthetic additives and even dangerous chemicals
in organic foods. In its new white paper, The Organic Watergate,
Cornucopia details violations of federal law, ignoring congressional
intent, that has created a climate of regulatory abuse and corporate
When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 it set
up an independent advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)
that, uniquely, has statutory power. Any synthetic input or ingredient
used in organic farming or food production must be reviewed by the NOSB
to assure that it is not a threat to human health or the environment.
At the NOSB meeting in Savannah, Georgia last year, a giant
Dutch-based multi-national conglomerate, Royal DSM N.V./Martek
Biosciences, partnered with the nation’s largest dairy processor, Dean
Foods, to muscle through approval of DHA/ARA synthetic nutrient oils.
The additives, derived from genetically mutated algae and soil fungus,
are processed with petrochemical solvents, grown in genetically
engineered corn, and formulated for use in infant formula, dairy and
other products with a myriad of other unreviewed synthetic ingredients.
“All these elements of the Martek Biosciences products, along with
outstanding safety and efficacy concerns, made them inappropriate and
illegal in organics,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Director of Food and Farm
Policy for Cornucopia. “So after witnessing this travesty, we decided
to take a closer look at how other synthetic additives have been
approved for use in organic foods in the past.”
What The Cornucopia Institute investigation found is disturbing to many organic industry stakeholders. The Cornucopia report
charges the USDA with “stacking” the NOSB with agribusiness executives
that all too often have “sold out” the interests of organic farmers and
“The organic community came together and actually asked the
government, in order to maintain a level playing field and organic
integrity, to regulate our industry,” said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of
The Cornucopia Institute. “How many other industries have ever asked
the federal government for tough regulations and enforcement?”
In order to placate concerns of federal involvement in the nascent
organic industry, Congress specifically earmarked the majority of the 15
seats on the NOSB for farmers, consumers, scientists and
environmentalists as a way to balance the power of commercial interests
involved in organic food manufacturing, marketing and retail sales.
“Many in the industry generally thought this system of shared power,
with regard to synthetics in organics, was working until we received a wake-up call at the NOSB’s meeting late last year in Savannah, Georgia,” Kastel noted.
Since the NOSB was not constituted by Congress to be a scientific
body, it relies on legally mandated technical reviews, by impartial
scientists, of any synthetic materials that are petitioned for use in
Cornucopia found that a small handful of scientists, working for
corporate agribusiness, supplied the “independent” analyses to the
board. In one example, an executive for Ralston Purina/Beech Nut, Dr.
Richard Theuer, authored 45 of 50 technical reviews during a two-year
period in the 1990s.
As a case study Cornucopia used the food ingredient carrageenan, a
stabilizer and thickening agent that was initially approved for use in
organic food in the mid-1990s. Theuer, and two other
agribusiness-related food scientists, reviewed carrageenan without
emphasizing its impacts on human health and the environment.
Carrageenan, derived from seaweed, has been widely used in conventional
foods for decades.
“Carrageenan is a well-documented inflammatory agent that has been
found, in thousands of experiments in human cells and animals, to cause
harmful effects, and low molecular weight carrageenan has been
recognized by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for
Research on Cancer and the National Research Council of the United
States as a possible human carcinogen,” said Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a
leading researcher on carrageenan and its human health impacts at the
University of Illinois at Chicago.
Low molecular weight, or “degraded,” carrageenan has been found, by
industry research, to contaminate food-grade carrageenan. Other research
has indicated that digestion, heating, bacterial action, and mechanical
processing can increase the amount of degraded carrageenan obtained
from higher molecular weight carrageenan. “Due to its unique chemical
characteristics, there is no safe form of carrageenan,” Dr. Tobacman
“Those of us in the industry, who are committed to the value of
wholesome, nutritious foods that has been the hallmark of the organic
industry, need the NOSB and the USDA to carefully and impartially review
synthetic ingredients like carrageenan,” said Michael Potter, President
of Eden Foods, a Clinton, Michigan based manufacturer long viewed as an organic leader.
In an effort to remediate this ongoing scandal, in a letter
to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Cornucopia demanded that one of the
newest appointees to the board, an executive at the giant California
berry producer, Driscolls,
be removed since she was placed in a slot Congress reserved for an
individual who “owns or operates an organic farming operation.”
“We have seen the USDA, in the past, appoint an executive from General Mills,
as an example, to a consumer slot on the board. This gross scoffing at
the law Congress passed as a safeguard against corporate domination
needs to end right now,” Kastel said. “We expected better from the Obama
administration. Either the USDA will immediately remediate this problem
or we will defend the organic law in federal court.”
Cornucopia’s white paper documents the long-term abuse of
congressional intent, by stacking the board with agribusiness
operatives, an illegal practice that has stretched over the past three
Another request in Cornucopia’s letter to Secretary Vilsack was to
reform the selection of independent scientists reviewing synthetics in
organics, stating that the industry needs an impartial board and the
board needs truly impartial expert advisors.
“I wish I was making this up, but one of the newest contractors to fulfill this review function is The Organic Center, the nonprofit offshoot of the Organic Trade Association, an agribusiness lobby group,” Kastel added. “This is the proverbial fox watching the organic chicken coop.”
The Organic Center’s board is chaired by Mark Retzloff, President of Aurora Dairy,
a giant factory farm milk producer bottling private-label organic milk
for Walmart, Costco and Target. Aurora was found by the USDA in 2007 to
have “willfully” violated 14 tenets of federal organic law—likely the
largest scandal in organic industry history.
Other members of the Organic Center’s leadership reads like a Who’s
Who of giant corporations involved in organics, including four
individuals associated with Dean Foods and their WhiteWave division
(Horizon and Silk).
“The Organic Center board members have worked, over the years, for
many of the very companies seeking approval for use of synthetics in
organic food,” noted Cornucopia’s Vallaeys. “Talk about a conflict of
Despite these problems, Cornucopia’s report is bullish on organics
and hopeful that the situation at the USDA can be turned around. There
are fewer than 300, mostly benign, non-organic and synthetic compounds
that have been approved for use in organics. That number is dwarfed by
the many thousands of chemicals used in conventional food production,
many of them highly toxic and carcinogenic.
“We implore consumers not to reject organics because a handful of
corporations have acted recklessly and the USDA has failed to do their
legally mandated job. Organic farmers, and their ethical processing
partners, need your support now more than ever,” Kastel added. “And
health conscious families deserve authentic organic food.”
The Cornucopia Institute is collecting signed proxies, downloadable from their website’s home page,
asking organic industry stakeholders, including farmers and consumers,
to sign the proxy and join in the demand that the USDA operate the
organic program legally.
The growing dispute over synthetic ingredients is likely to be a hot
topic at the next meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, set
for May 22-25 in Albuquerque, NM.
“We know that carrageenan is up for review at this meeting and we
hope the NOSB will revisit their controversial decision on Martek’s
DHA/ARA. We urge the board to take this opportunity to reinforce
consumer confidence in the organic label,” said Kastel.
Past Technical Reviews Produced by Agribusiness Insiders
We took the stabilizer/thickener carrageenan
(a seaweed derivative) as a case study (and a timely one, as it will be
up for a sunset review by the current NOSB at their May 22 meeting in
Albuquerque, New Mexico).
When carrageenan was first reviewed, in 1995, the NOSB, as required
by law, looked at potential environmental or health impacts after
examining a Technical Review produced by three experts with ties to
corporate agribusiness: Dr. Steve Harper, Director of R&D at Small
Planet Foods (now owned by General Mills), Dr. Richard Theuer, Vice
President of R&D at Beech Nut, and Dr. Stephen Taylor, Professor of
Food Science at the University of Nebraska, a defender of genetic
engineering (Dr. Taylor has published studies on GMOs/allergy risk
co-authored with agribusiness scientists at DuPont/Pioneer
Hi-Bred—manufacturer of chemicals and GMO seed).
This Technical Review hardly mentioned some potential serious health
impacts from “degraded” carrageenan, failing to cite any of the research
or to inform the Board that, historically, as much as 25% of
carrageenan on the market was categorized as degraded. Current research
shows all types of carrageenan can degrade in the body and create
serious known health impacts.
The technical review in 1995 also failed to document the known environmental hazards
from discharge of alkaline wastewater and the deleterious impacts of
seaweed farming to reefs, coastal ecosystems and mangroves—by law,
organics is supposed to do no harm.
Carrageenan has once again been recommended for approval in organic
foods by the current NOSB’s Handling Committee. As before, no negative
environmental impacts and no human health threats were recognized by the
industry-friendly Handling subcommittee. And once again, Dr. Theuer has
submitted comments in support of its re-approval.
Empowering Consumers in the Marketplace
In an effort to empower organic consumers and wholesale buyers, The
Cornucopia Institute has published a number of scorecards rating organic
brands on a number of integrity-based benchmarks. They have also
published guidance in order to avoid Martek DHA and ARA oils, and
carrageenan, in organic food.
It should be noted that before going public with this information The
Cornucopia Institute has contacted and brought these concerns to the
attention of top USDA political appointees, its National Organic Program
leadership and staff, the Organic Trade Association and manufacturers,
both regarding carrageenan specifically and the corrupted approval
process of synthetics in organics in general. For the most part, we have
been ignored or slandered.
We understand the risk in terms of collateral damage to the organic
label in this discussion taking place, now, in public. But, as the famed
Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel has eloquently stated, “The
acquiescence to evil is the worst form of evil.” Hence, silence, at this
point, only aids and abets those individuals and entities, in pursuit
of profit, that are willing to exploit the trust of organic consumers
and competitively injure ethical organic farmers and businesses.
The Cornucopia Institute is engaged in educational activities
supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying
sustainable and organic agriculture. Through research and investigations
on agricultural and food issues, The Cornucopia Institute provides
needed information to family farmers, consumers, stakeholders involved
in the good food movement, and the media.