Shouldn’t We Mount the Barricades to Strengthen Organic Rules?

Together, two tidbits in today’s food pages are convincing arguments to hug the US Department of Agriculture’s unlovely, loophole-pitted Organic Standards and never let them go. In an excellent report on soon-to-be-mandated rules for pasteurizing almonds, Chron staffer Carol Ness describes the California almond industry’s solution to salmonella flare-ups traced to the state’s golden cash crop in 2001 and 2004. While conventional almonds will be blasted — starting September 1 — with what Ness describes as “a carcinogenic chemical that’s used to make bowling balls,” federal organic rules, she writes, will allow for steam treatment. The latter is a form of pasteurization sure to make raw-philes and those of us who like to know what’s been done to our food rather steamed ourselves, since no descriptive labeling will be required. Nibble on that troubling factoid for a minute.
Over in the Oakland Trib‘s Picky Eater column, Jolene Thym picks up this week’s story about the National Organic Standards Board voting to exclude cloned livestock and its meat from being called “organic.” Thym breaks it down: “The upshot? For now, if you buy organic, you will be sidestepping any possible risks associated with cloning.” A rare victory.
The two stories underline both the imperfection and importance of the government’s Organic Standards. In one case it’s stood up for the integrity of traditional livestock breeding, in the other it condones a presumably gentler practice than chemical treatment, but thwarts transparency. Love it or hate it, the USDA’s organic label carries huge consequences. To paraphrase food policy maven Marion Nestle, if you think the Organic Standards are too weak, organize to strengthen them — just don’t pretend the fight will be anything but a long, bloody slog. Of course, as Ness points out in her nut reporting, “almonds sold through farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and CSA boxes are exempt” from the pasteurization mandate. That’s a good argument to say “feh” to the officially sanctioned organic label. But don’t we have an obligation to save “organic” from a fatal toothlessness, and demand more decisions like the one that excluded cloned meat?


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