When it comes to organic foods, the labels you see at the grocery store might not be as straightforward as you expect. You might assume those organic apples were grown without antibiotics, but the USDA allows a list of exceptions to the list of banned chemicals. This week a few of those excepted substances were up for debate at the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board – and the discussion was heated.
Originally, chemicals on the list of exceptions were supposed to “sunset,” meaning that they were only approved for a few years to allow farmers time to adapt, at which time they would expire. But last fall the USDA changed the rules, making it so that a two-thirds majority must vote to remove synthetic chemicals from the exceptions list, where before it required a two-thirds majority vote to keep a chemical on the list.
During the meeting, a group of protesters began chanting “don’t change sunset,” in order to encourage a return to the old rules, and one protester had to be carried out of the meeting by police. Some fear that large companies will work to make organics less pure and more like conventional agriculture, and they see the change in the sunset rule as one step in that direction.
Fortunately, an antibiotic used to grow apples (streptomycin) and a chemical used in feed for egg-producing chickens (methionine) were removed from the exceptions list during the meeting. Streptomycin was schedule to end several years ago, so a two-thirds majority was required to extend its use. The panel voted 8 to 7 in favor, so the chemical is now banned in organics. Methionine also failed to receive the two-thirds majority vote and will no longer be allowed. But going forward, it will be harder for chemicals to be removed from the list of exceptions, making USDA Organic foods a little less, well, organic.