Questions and Answers
About the 7CFR 205.606 Interim Final Rule from the National Organic Program, Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
June 27, 2007
How can consumers know the organic content of food and beverages they purchase?
National organic standards provide for a number of different labeling categories for organic products. One category is “100 percent organic,” allowed only for products that have been exclusively produced using organic methods. A second category, “Organic,” signifies that at least 95 percent of the ingredients (by weight, excluding water and salt) in a processed product have been organically produced. The remaining content can only be ingredients recommended by the National Organic Standards Board and allowed on the National List.
Why are any non-organic agricultural ingredients allowed in organic food products?
The national organic standards became effective in late October 2002 and since that time, more and more ingredients have become available in their certified organic form. However, in the five years since the rule was implemented, a few minor ingredients essential for particular products are still not yet available in sufficient quantity, quality or form.
Does this mean any non-organic agricultural ingredient can be used in an organic product?
No, there are strict regulatory requirements for determining whether a non-organic agricultural ingredient may be used. First, there is a process for the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to review and recommend ingredients. Then, organic certifiers must determine if that particular ingredient is unavailable in the organic form, quality and quantity. Only if a non-organic agricultural ingredient is on the National List and is unavailable as organic can it be used as a minor ingredient in the 5 percent portion of a product labeled “Organic.”
Won’t this new rule prevent the production of organic ingredients?
No, in fact the evidence shows the opposite effect. Allowing non-organic “minor ingredients” was what drove the boom in organic spices in the 1990s—companies would try out new organic products, and if they succeeded, organic farmers rushed to produce those items that were required to be used if they were available. Cinnamon is the usual example of an ingredient that was at one point unobtainable as organic, but thanks to the commercial availability clause, is now a thriving organic spice.
What new ingredients would be used in organic products as a result of this Interim Final Rule?
None. The 38 agricultural ingredients in the Interim Final Rule were already in use in organic products that are at least 95% organic. This is actually fewer non-organic agricultural ingredients than were in use before June 9, 2007.
What are these agricultural ingredients?
The 38 ingredients covered by the interim final rule for inclusion on the list include 19 food colorings, two starches, casings for sausages, hops, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin, celery powder, dill weed oil, frozen lemongrass, and fructooligosaccharides (a sweetener that also acts as a bulking agent).
How many agricultural ingredients are listed now as acceptable for up to 5% in a 95% or more organic product?
Only five non-organic agricultural items are currently on the National List and allowed in up to 5% of products labeled as “Organic”. They are cornstarch, water-extracted gums, kelp, unbleached lecithin, and pectin.
Are these ingredients “synthetics”?
No, all of the proposed ingredients are from agricultural sources.
What process was used to review and propose these 38 ingredients?
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is a citizen advisory body made up of experts from every aspect of the organic spectrum, including consumers. After USDA agreed that the ingredients allowed for up to 5 % of an organic product should be significantly tightened up, processors and ingredient suppliers who were concerned that organic versions of a small number of minor agricultural products might be short supply because of form, quality or quantity filed petitions for consideration for these ingredients. Then the NOSB reviewed the petitions, listed the petitions on its public web site as part of the agenda for its upcoming meeting, and held a public meeting at which each petition was publicly discussed. During those public meetings, NOSB recommended only 38 non-organic agricultural ingredients for use. Next, USDA took the NOSB recommended list and issued a proposed rule listing these 38 ingredients in the Federal Register for public comment. The NOSB did not recommend all the ingredients that were petitioned.
In fact, according to USDA, the National Organic Program (NOP) and NOSB received approximately 99 petitions to add more than 600 non-organic agricultural ingredients and substances to Section 205.606. After program review, 79 petitions to add 52 substances were forwarded through the petition review process to NOSB’s Materials and Handling Committees for review and evaluation against the Organic Food Production Act criteria and NOP regulations. Prior to the public NOSB meetings, 52 draft recommendations from the NOSB committees were posted on NOP’s web site for review and public comment. Of the 52 petition ingredients, NOSB, for its March 2007 meeting, requested, received and reviewed public comments on the petitioned ingredients, and voted to add 38 to Section 205.606 of the National List.
Are the National Organic Standards considered food safety standards?
No, the Food and Drug Administration and USDA are charged by Congress to enforce food safety laws.
How do I know these non-organic agricultural ingredients are safe and of high quality?
Even the ingredients in the 5 percent allowance of “Organic” products are subject to restrictions in how they were grown. Like all other ingredients, they also must meet local, state and federal food safety requirements. Consumers have come to recognize that organic businesses have high standards for all their ingredients.