Whole Food Center
HOW ORGANIC LOST ITS MEANING
How Organic Lost Its Meaning
What follows is a breakdown of The Organic Watergate—White Paper published by the Cornucopia Institute in May of 2012, which outlines long-term abuse of congressional intent by the USDA which has stacked the board with agribusiness representatives, an illegal practice. It is recommended that you read the entire document for yourself.
The investigation into the “Organic Watergate” was prompted by the approval of highly processed DHA and ARA oils from genetically mutated algae and soil fungus, petitioned by the $12 billion multinational corporations Royal DSM/Martek Biosciences Corporation. The approval, by a narrow margin, shocked public interest groups that had opposed the petitions. Not a single public interest or consumer organization had favored the approval of Martek’s oils; yet the NOSB Chair, Tracy Miedema, who had aggressively championed Martek’s oils, served in a consumer slot – reserved by law for individuals who represent a public interest or consumer organizations. Miedema never, during her five-year term on the Board, represented a public interest organization. With the approval of Martek’s oils, championed by a “consumer” representative on the Board, it became clear that the corporate stacking of the Board leads to the erosion of the integrity of the organic label, with real repercussions for organic consumers, farmers, and the public interest.
Cornucopia’s investigation into past technical reviews was prompted by the inadequacy and biases present in the technical review of Martek's DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil petition. The investigation learned that past technical reviews have generally been produced by corporate executives, consultants serving corporate agribusiness or closely aligned academics.
It is specified that a technical advisory panel must provide the NOSB with a scientific review of petitioned synthetic materials. It is vitally important that the scientists performing these reviews provide complete and unbiased scientific analyses to the Board, as specified in the NOSB’s Policy Manual.
Who is the NOSB?
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is a Federal Advisory Board made up of "15 dedicated public volunteers" from across the organic community. Established by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), the NOSB considers and makes recommendations on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products.
Each NOSB member is appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for a five-year term. USDA publishes a call for nominations each Spring, and newly appointed members begin service in January of the following year.
The NOSB, unlike other advisory boards, has statutory authority. Any synthetic input or ingredient used in organic food production must be reviewed and approved by the NOSB to assure that no chemicals that could pose a threat to human health or the environment are used in organic food production. The NOSB also recommends policy and modifications to the regulations governing organic agriculture and food processing in the United States. In part to placate concerns about handing over authority of the organic label to the federal government (it was previously a voluntary certification system), Congress specifically earmarked the majority of the 15 seats on the NOSB for organic farmers, consumers, scientists and environmentalists as a way to balance the power of commercial interests involved in organic food manufacturing, marketing and retail sales.
You can view a current list of NOSB members here and a list of past members here.
Stacking the NOSB:
According to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, sec. 2119, the NOSB “shall be composed of 15 members, of which –
(1)four shall be individuals who own or operate an organic farming operation;
(2)two shall be individuals who own or operate an organic handling operation;
(3) one shall be an individual who owns or operates a retail establishment with
significant trade in organic products;
(4)three shall be individuals with expertise in areas of environmental protection
and resource conservation;
(5)three shall be individuals who represent public interest or consumer interest
(6) one shall be an individual with expertise in the fields of toxicology, ecology or
(7) One shall be an individual who is a certifying agent as identified under OFPA, 7 U.S.C.
Congress established the National Organic Standards Board with the clear intention of creating a balanced array of representations. Such a diverse representation of the organic community could work well to balance competing interests and corporate power if the intent of Congress was respected. However, since the NOSB’s inception, both Republican and Democratic administrations have consistently abused the law and appointed corporate representatives to seats that were clearly intended for independent voices, leading to disproportionate levels of corporate influence on the Board.
The NOSB is intended to be a citizen panel representing diverse stakeholders in the organic community, not a scientific expert panel. To ensure that the NOSB – with only one of the fifteen slots filled by a scientist – would base its decisions about synthetic materials on sound science, Congress specified in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) that “the Board shall convene technical advisory panels to provide scientific evaluation of the materials considered for inclusion in the National List” (Sec. 2119(k)(3)). In its Policy Manual, the NOSB outlines the criteria for these technical reviews. The reviews should be free from conjecture and be based on the best available scientific information. Therefore, the scientists performing the technical reviews should provide an unbiased and complete analysis of the material’s appropriateness for use in organics, and should point out any scientific concerns about its potential impacts on human health and the environment. This is based on OFPA, which specifies that materials may be included on the National List of Approved Substances only if they “would not be harmful to human health or the environment”.
Below are some members of the NOSB who filled environmentalist, scientist, public interest and farmer slots despite not appearing to have the appropriate legally required qualifications to serve in one of those slots. These individuals share one thing in common: they were all employed by (or contracted/consulted with) agribusinesses during their term on the NOSB.
Jean Afterman – environmentalist slot. Afterman worked as vice president and general counsel for PurePak, Inc., a major corporate agribusiness. Afterman has an undergraduate degree in art history and a law degree from the San Francisco School of Law. It is unclear why Afterman was appointed as an environmentalist with no background in environmental science or environmental activism. While at PurePak, Afterman specialized in international market development.
Carmela Beck – farmer slot. Beck was a full-time employee at Driscoll's, which markets both conventional and organic berries. Beck manages the organic certification for Driscoll’s farmers and suppliers and does not own or operate an organic farm. Driscoll’s controls roughly a third of the six-billion-dollar U.S. berry market.
Gerald Davis – farmer slot. Davis did not own or operate an organic farm at the time of his appointment but worked as an agronomist at California-based Grimmway Farms, one of the largest carrot producers in the world (you might know them better under their Cal-Organic label).
Kristina "Tina" Ellor – environmentalist slot. Ellor was a full-time employee at Phillip’s Mushrooms during her term on the NOSB. Phillip’s Mushrooms is primarily engaged in conventional mushroom production, with a portion of its business in organics. Phillips Mushrooms was recently named as a defendant in an antitrust legal case purporting a monopolization of white Agaricus mushrooms.
William J. Friedman - environmentalist slot. Friedman is currently with the powerful Washington law firm of Covington and Burling. At the time of his appointment, he was a bureaucrat in the New Mexico state government. In testimony to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in December 2011, Friedman said, "I oversee the organic product practice at Covington and Berling, a law firm in D.C. We have the largest organic products practice in the world. . . . I've represented Martek Biosciences -- and my firm has -- since 2005."
Wendy Fulwider – farmer slot. Fulwider is a full-time employee at Organic Valley, a $700 million agribusiness cooperative. At the time of her appointment in 2009, she did not own or operate an organic farm.
Dan Giacomini – consumer/public interest slot. Giacomini did not represent a consumer interest group; rather, he was a nutritionist/feed consultant for the livestock industry. When on the NOSB as a consumer representative, Giacomini was a feed consultant to Straus Dairy, one of the two prominent opponents of stricter pasture enforcement. Giacomini served as chair of the NOSB.
Katrina Heinze – scientist slot. Heinze, a full-time employee at General Mills, was originally appointed as a consumer/public interest representative. Her name was withdrawn from the consumer slot following public outcry over her appointment, and she was reappointed to a scientist slot.
Tracy Miedema – consumer/public interest slot. In her five years as a consumer representative on the NOSB, Miedema never worked for or represented a public interest organization. She worked for several different companies during her five-year term. According to her Linkedin profile, Miedema worked as an Associate Marketer at General Mills’ Small Planet Foods division from 2001-2004, and as a National Sales and Marketing Manager at Stahlbush Island Farm from 2005 to 2010. According to its website, Stahlbush Island Farm grows produce on 5,000 acres, only one-third of which is certified organic. She was appointed to a consumer slot in 2006. During her term on the NOSB, in 2010, Miedema became employed at Earthbound Farm, one of the largest organic produce growers and marketers in the country. Earthbound already had an employee on the NOSB, John Foster, so the company had two employees on the NOSB for over a year.
Kevin O'Rell – farmer slot. O’Rell was president of Horizon, a division of the $12 billion Dean Foods. O’Rell’s company operated several corporate-owned organic dairies, so he might have technically qualified for one of the four slots reserved for individuals who “own or operate an organic farm”. O’Rell was NOSB Chair in the middle of the debate around more aggressive pasture enforcement at the National Organic Program. At the time, Horizon owned and operated an 8,000-head “organic” dairy operation in Idaho, as well as a second corporate-owned facility with 500-600 cows in Maryland. Horizon was also buying milk from the Case Vander Eyk, Jr. dairy in Pixley, CA, with a capacity of 10,000 milking cows, on a feedlot with no pasture, which Dean Foods/Horizon included in the accounting of their “family farms.” While O’Rell was on the Board, Cornucopia had filed legal complaints that were pending with the USDA alleging a violation of the law on their dairies.
Some companies have had disproportionate representation on the Board. For example, General Mills and its Small Planet Foods division has had four employees serve on the Board. Two Earthbound Farms employees served on the Board simultaneously (Tracy Miedema as a consumer/public interest representative and John Foster as a handler representative).
The following agribusinesses have had representatives appointed to the Board:
- Earthbound Farm (2 representatives have served, a handler and a consumer
representative): Earthbound farm is currently owned by Taylor Farms, a billion-dollar company accused of the exploitation of undocumented workers.
- General Mills (4 representatives have served, three handlers and a scientist): General Mills holdings in the natural and organic market include Annie's, Cascadian Farm, EPIC, Food Should Taste Good, Immaculate Baking, Lärabar, Liberté yogurt, Mountain High and Muir Glen. General Mills net worth as of May 13, 2019, is $30.86 billion.
- Dean Foods (farmer slot): Dean Foods owns 58 individual brands, with assets exceeding 2.8 billion dollars.
- Campbell Soup Company (handler slot) Campbell’s owns multiple “organic and natural” brands including Plum Organics and Bolthouse Farms. Campbell Soup net worth as of May 13, 2019, is $11.66 billion.
- Grimmway Enterprises, Inc. (farmer slot): Grimmway Enterprises, Inc is the largest grower, producer, and shipper of carrots in the world. Grimmway’s divisions include Grimmway Farms, Cal-Organic Farms, Bunny-Luv, and Bunny-Luv Organic.
- Smucker’s (handler slot): The JM Smucker Company brands include: Smucker's, Santa Cruz Organic, Jif, Crisco, Pillsbury, R.W. Knudsen Family, Hungry Jack, Dunkin' Donuts, Meow Mix, Milk-Bone, Kibbles 'n Bits, 9Lives, Folgers, truRoots and Sahale Snacks. Their net worth as of May 13, 2019, is $14.42 billion.
- CROPP/Organic Valley (3 representatives, all appointed to a farmer slot)
- Purina Ralcorp (handler slot): Ralcorp has seen its share of owners. It was divested by ConAgra in 2015. In 2016, it was acquired by TreeHouse Foods, Inc, a division of the above mentioned Dean Foods.
- Driscoll’s (farmer slot): Driscoll’s has often been accused of poor labor conditions and was also involved in an antitrust lawsuit.
- Phillips Mushrooms (environmentalist slot)
Okay, okay. I think we’ve established that the NOSB, the organization whose SOLE PURPOSE is to protect the organic standard, is fraught with undue corporate influence. But surely they are fulfilling that minimum requirement- only approving ingredients and additives that “would not be harmful to human health or the environment”... right?
Let’s talk about carrageenan.
Per policy, The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) must review every substance on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances every five years to confirm that it continues to meet all required criteria. This review is called “sunset review.” During this 5-year review, the NOSB reviews the substance, public comments, and any new information concerning the substance. This could include reviewing any new information about the substance’s impact to human health or the environment, any new proven, natural alternatives, or other criteria under the Organic Foods Production Act.
Since carrageenan was pending a sunset review shortly after the approval of the algal oils, Cornucopia staff examined this controversial ingredient, originally approved for use in organics in 1995. One type of carrageenan is listed by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as a “possible human carcinogen.” Who would have thought, when members of the organic community lobbied Congress to set up a system to assure integrity in the organic industry, that we would find the National Organic Standards Board approving a food ingredient classified by the World Health Organization as a "possible carcinogen" in organic food?
Not only was the review process undermined when carrageenan was first approved, but it was also flawed when it was re-reviewed five years after the organic regulations went into effect. 100% of the public comments, at that time, were in support of its continued use in organics. All of those comments came from corporations producing carrageenan, agribusinesses using the ingredient and the Organic Trade Association.
“Carrageenan was reviewed in 1995 by three scientists with professional relationships to corporate agribusiness, and only one pointed out the potential human health impacts of degraded carrageenan. This is especially outrageous since the scientific community had known for decades, based on an abundance of peer-reviewed published literature, that degraded carrageenan is an inflammatory agent and carcinogenic in lab animals. Degraded carrageenan was listed as a “possible human carcinogen” by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in 1983 – more than a decade before the 1995 TAP review. There has been a long-time controversy over the inflammatory and carcinogenic properties of degraded carrageenan. But concerns with food-grade carrageenan date back as far as the late 1970s. In 1980, British scientists R. Marcus and James Watt published a letter in The Lancet titled “Potential Hazards of Carrageenan,” which sparked an open debate in The Lancet. It was inexcusable for the three TAP reviewers in 1995 to fail to mention the concerns with carrageenan that were so openly and publicly debated in the scientific community.”
Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed. In its natural state, this edible seaweed is native to the British Isles, where it's been used in traditional cooking for hundreds of years. Carrageenan is also used as an ingredient in foods such as dairy, dairy alternatives (such as soy-based beverages and desserts), and deli meats as a thickening agent, stabilizer and/or emulsifier.
There are a few distinct types of carrageenan that differ in their chemical properties, but the most important distinction is between degraded carrageenan and undegraded carrageenan. From a chemical standpoint, the difference between these two types is in their molecular weight. From a practical standpoint, undegraded carrageenan is approved for use in food products, while degraded carrageenan is not. Although both substances are often referred to as ‘carrageenan,’ they have very different chemical properties and should really be treated as separate compounds.
Carrageenan processors tend to portray the difference between degraded and undegraded carrageenan as a simple, black-and-white distinction. They claim that food-grade carrageenan sold to food processors falls entirely in the undegraded category. However, studies (including industry-funded studies) show that food-grade carrageenan is also linked to colon inflammation and colon cancer in animals. Studies have reported that high molecular weight carrageenan can degrade in the gastrointestinal tract to low molecular weight carrageenan.
Moreover, when the industry-tested its food-grade carrageenan for the presence of degraded carrageenan, results showed that every sample had at least some degraded carrageenan, with some test results of food-grade carrageenan showing as much as 25% degraded carrageenan.
(Some good news- in 2016 the NOSB recommended removing carrageenan from organic foods. The bad news? The USDA almost immediately defied the board and approved carrageenan for continued use.)
All right, let’s come back together for a minute. We (Rooted Nutrition) prefer to put our stock in HUMAN studies, and much of the research on carrageenan is still divided. Yet, at the very least there is some cause for concern as to whether carrageenan “would not be harmful to human health or the environment”, and if there is no conclusive proof that it is definitely NOT harmful, shouldn’t the National Organic Standards Board err on the side of safety?
A conflict of interest:
The initial technical review for carrageenan, from 1995, was performed by three scientists, two of them employed by major agribusiness corporations. One was Steve Harper, a food scientist
at Small Planet Foods, which is now owned by the multi-billion-dollar corporation General Mills. Another reviewer was Richard Theuer, then an executive and public relations expert at the Beech-Nut division of the multi-billion-dollar corporation Ralston Purina. Theuer had served on the Board as a handler from 1992 to 1995. Immediately upon retiring from the NOSB, he became involved in the review of nearly every synthetic ingredient. Between 1995 and 1996, roughly 50 ingredients were reviewed, and Theuer reviewed 45 of them. He unconditionally approved 35 and recommended 6 with restrictions. While Theuer is a food scientist, he worked as a corporate executive when he performed the technical reviews for the NOSB. He started his career with the infant formula division of Mead Johnson, first developing new powdered infant formulas, then on to marketing infant formula (1965-1980). He then worked for Nestle, where he worked in the infant formula marketing department (1980-1983). Nestle’s infant formula marketing has been criticized for decades by breastfeeding advocacy groups around the world. Theuer then joined Beech-Nut/Ralston Purina where he worked in the baby food development, but also their public relations business (1983-1999). He was with BeechNut when he did the 45 TAP reviews. He became a consultant, including for organic businesses, in 1999. Essentially, he is a PR professional for the baby food and infant formula industry (his CV states that he "prepared a defense of comparative advertising claims that survived competitive challenges"). Theuer submitted a comment to the NOSB in April 2012, stating that he continues to believe that food-grade carrageenan is safe for use in foods. Interestingly, in that comment, he states that he avoids all foods with carrageenan because he experiences what he calls an allergic reaction to carrageenan – yet he continues to defend its approval for organics.
Theuer also publicly defended Martek’s DHA algal oil and lobbied for its inclusion on the National List. Theuer, as an executive in the infant formula and baby food industry, worked with the same scientists who were funded by Mead Johnson and published studies that became the basis for infant formula advertisements touting the benefits of DHA algal oil. Theuer is also a member of the Institute of Food Technologists, a pro-nanotech and pro-GMO group that has lobbied at NOSB meetings for allowing nanotechnology in organic foods.
Getting back to Martek’s DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil and its inclusion on the National List, which prompted Cornucopia’s deep dive:
There have been many studies touting the benefits of a diet high in fish. But corporations cannot profit much from dietary pattern changes. They can, however, use reductionist science to isolate a nutrient in fish, in this case, the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), recreate it in a lab, patent it, and sell it for profit by encouraging processed foods to make associated health claims.
DHA is one of the many naturally occurring nutrients in breast milk and a structural component of the brain and retina. Since some studies have suggested that breast-fed infants have an advantage in cognitive and visual development over formula-fed infants, reductionist scientists honed in on DHA as the magical nutrient in breast milk that would fix the shortcomings of formula.
Martek Biosciences Corporation manufactures its DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil by fermenting algal and fungal microorganisms in stainless steel tanks containing the microorganisms’ “feed,” which consists of ethanol and other ingredients that are, because of the widespread adoption of genetically engineered crops in the U.S., almost assuredly derived from genetically engineered corn.
When used in infant formula, the oil from the algae and fungus is then extracted by mixing the microorganisms with hexane, a neurotoxic and highly explosive petroleum-based solvent. Their oils for foods other than infant formula are extracted with the use of enzymes and the synthetic petroleum-based solvent isopropyl alcohol. The extracted oil is then further processed, including bleaching and deodorizing. The algal oils destined for liquid products, such as milk, are mixed with conventional sunflower oil, synthetic stabilizers, preservatives, and other ingredients. Numerous additional synthetic ingredients, including sweeteners, are added to the powdered form, which is microencapsulated before it is added to infant formula or other dry foods like baby cereal.
Does that sound organic to you?
Professor Marion Nestle, a well-respected food scientist out of New York University, wrote about the corporate influence on nutrition science in Food Politics. Calling foods like Martek’s DHA algal oil “techno-foods,” she points out that “it should be evident that the philosophical rationale for techno-foods is flatly reductionist; the value of a food is reduced to its single functional ingredient.” These high-tech, quick-fix solutions to dietary problems ignore the complexity of nutrients in foods and the complexity of how our bodies use foods.
In the 1970s, two Danish physicians traveled to Greenland to study the diet of the Inuit. Since the thinking at the time was that fat caused heart disease, the scientists were perplexed by the fact that the Inuit, who eat lots of fat and fatty blubber, had virtually no heart disease. When the Inuit started eating more Western foods, their heart health declined. Pretty soon, their rates of heart disease were comparable to Danish and American rates. To reductionist science, this was perplexing because the consumption of fish and seal blubber had not declined. So here was a population eating as much fish as any population could be expected to consume, and heart health declined with the introduction of Western foods in the diet.
These real-world scenarios force scientists, not associated with profit-making ventures, to abandon the reductionist model.
As you will often hear us shout from the rooftops: there is more going on than simply the number of milligrams of a nutrient that a person consumes.
Once a nutrient has been identified in a beneficial food, scientists seek to prove that it confers the same benefits as the real food in which the nutrient naturally occurs. Such studies, when performed or analyzed by scientists working for the very corporation that has manufactured those nutrients, cannot be respected as sound science.
Martek Biosciences Corporation relies on reductionist science to sell oils that are extracted from fermented algae and soil fungus that have been genetically altered to contain higher levels of the fatty acids DHA and ARA.
The algae could produce high levels of the fatty acid DHA, which is found in fish oil. However, fish oil also contains high levels of another fatty acid, EPA. In a classic example of science that aims to prove rather than probe, the scientists, who had algae producing DHA but not EPA, then locked onto the thesis that “it was DHA and not EPA that was important.” Rather than aim to understand the complexity of fish oil, it was concluded that “fish oils were not entirely satisfactory sources because all these oils contained both fatty acids in roughly equal proportions.”
In a 1999 study to determine the effect of DHA in the development of Alzheimer’s Disease, led by Martek founder and scientist David Kyle, the authors wrote that they chose algal oil because “it contains no EPA, which may be contraindicated in otherwise healthy elderly patients.” In order to put their newly discovered microorganisms to profitable use, the scientists needed to discredit one naturally occurring fatty acid in favor of another, for the sole reason that their microorganisms produced one but not the other. And to make matters more convoluted, corporate scientists then decided that EPA was not “neutral,” but that it interfered with the uptake of DHA and therefore actually harmful.
In their quest for “science” that would back up their profitable venture, and contradicting all scientific evidence of the time, Martek scientists concluded that eating fish, the natural food that brought them to DHA would be less beneficial than taking the supplements of algal oil that they developed. It would be difficult to find a clearer case in the nutritional world of unsound science, driven solely by corporate greed.
The fight over Martek’s oils in organic foods pitted multibillion-dollar corporations and their lobbying power against public interest groups like Cornucopia. It raised serious questions about the direction the organic industry is moving in and also led Cornucopia to question the appropriateness of past approvals by the National Organic Standards Board. The sole reason that corporations like Dean Foods, which puts Martek’s oils in its Horizon milk, initially put Martek’s oils in organic products was to join the conventional food industry’s lucrative practice of slapping misleading health claims on its packaging.
In the debate over Martek’s place in organic foods, Martek and its customers and supporters have argued that Martek’s oils and health claims on organic foods help sell more organic foods, which is in itself a noble goal. However, it is based on false assumptions and is a risky move that puts the entire organic industry at risk. It is based on the false assumption that the organic industry can only continue growing if it surrenders to the same misleading and reductionist health claims as to the conventional food industry. As one Board member commented in a private email to his colleagues on the Board, if the conventional food industry writes on the wall with crayons, the knee jerk reaction of the organic industry should not be to grab some organic crayons and join in. The organic industry should be held to higher standards. The addition to organic foods of questionable ingredients like Martek’s oils puts the entire organic industry at risk because sooner or later consumers will feel cheated by what they thought was a highly regulated label. To sacrifice the organic standards by slowly chipping away at them – adding materials like Martek’s oils to the list of non-organic ingredients that are allowed – may bring short-term profit spikes to a handful of corporations but is not in the best interest of the organic industry as a whole.
Whom can you trust?
This list will change over time, we will add good sources as we find them and we may take organizations away because they stop doing the right thing. Also, we are not endorsing 100% of everything each of these organizations says, but in general they are very trustworthy and are fighting for small farms, ethical and environmental practices, consumers and the right to know what is actually going on in our food supply.
Organic Consumers Association (Don’t confuse them with the “Organic” Trade Association, an industry lobbying group)
Real Organic Project
Agricultural Justice Project