Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Importance of USDA Organic Certification

Wow, it seems like "another one bites the dust."  First there was the reformulation of the baby products, now one of our organic competitors have decided to drop their organic certification.  What's next!?  Instead of talking about their possible motivations, though, we thought we'd take this opportunity to clarify a few things about USDA organic certification, and to talk about what organic certification really means to you, as the end-user of these products. 

In their explanation of why they're dropping their certification, the "other company" says:
"This year the USDA Certifying Agency has raised their annual fees dramatically.  By them doing so it caused most of our USDA Certified Organic Suppliers to have to increase their prices."
I found this kind of strange (improper capitalization aside) for a few reasons.  First, there are always price fluctuations based on supply and demand.  Some ingredients have increased in price, like jojoba oil, due to a worldwide shortage, but we haven't noticed any huge overall increases. Second, there is no such entity as "the USDA Certifying Agency."  There are many organic certifying agencies, but their statement makes it seem like there is just one giant agency that certifies everyone.  Organic certification just doesn't work this way.

The USDA National Organic Program certifies third-party certifying agencies, like QAI, Oregon Tilth, etc.  Then, the certifying agencies certify the farms and production facilities under the USDA regulations.  The USDA does not directly certify any farms, products, or facilities.  It's all done through the certifiers who answer to the USDA.

For a full list of third-party organic certifiers, visit this link: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5074486

The "other company" makes it seem like it's the government that's charging them, but, as you can see, it's the certifying company that they hired that they're paying, not the government.  The government isn't seeing any of their money.  If their certifying agency has increased their prices, all they would need to do is find another certifying agency.

They say "We decided that until the government can change the regulations and charge those poison companies instead of us organic and safe companies, that we no longer want to partake in funding the USDA Agencies."  While this may sound like a good argument, it's flawed because the government isn't charging them; it's the certifying agency.  And it's not as if someone just came in and slapped fees on them; it was their choice to earn USDA organic certification in the first place.  And the fees for certification can always be shopped.  If you feel that your current company is charging you too much, you can get a quote from any of the other hundreds of companies.  If you really want organic certification, you can find a way.

While it may sound like they're taking some kind of stand against the "poison companies," in reality, they're hurting organics.  Each ingredient they switch to conventional takes business away from organic farms that use sustainable growing and harvesting methods and, instead, supports farms that use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs and the like.  What if all companies did this in the name of lowering prices? We would end up with our entire food (and body care) supply being "conventional," loaded with genetic modification, pesticides and synthetic fertilizer residue, and deplete from nutritional value. It would be 1994 again, when organic wasn't even a choice.  We wouldn't know how our foods were grown or if they were genetically modified.  If you really want the cost of organic ingredients to go down, you support them. You use as many organic ingredients as possible.  You hold fast and find ways to negotiate with your ingredient suppliers, buy in bulk, and shop around for the best prices.  The greater the demand for organic, the more competition there is, more land is used for organic agriculture and prices go down.  Eschewing organic certification and ingredients doesn't do anything to make organics more affordable. It only allows you to lower your prices in the hopes of getting more sales.

Importance of Organic

Organic is so widely used now in marketing that sometimes we can forget about the real importance of choosing organic products.  Organic isn't a meaningless marketing term just to make something seem more natural or to hike its price.  There are real reasons to use organic products and foods.  Organic ingredients are grown without the use of a group of toxic pesticides called organophosphates.  Organophosphates kill insects by affecting their nervous systems. Unfortunately it can do the same thing to us, hurting our brains and nervous systems, and they can be used as biological weapons.  (Organophosphates have been used as nerve gas in warfare. Source) Herbicides like glyphosate (Roundup) are toxic in moderate to high doses in humans, are a suspected reproductive toxin (xenoestrogen) and are highly dangerous to aquatic life.  (Source) Non-organic foods and ingredients contain traces of these poisonous substances.  And yes, these are small traces, and the dose does make the poison, but think about daily exposure from your foods and personal care products combined.  The exposure can build up.  But also, these pesticides and herbicides are sprayed year-after-year on fields, permeating the soil and leaching in to groundwater that affects all those around it, closely, and far downstream.  When you stop supporting organic, you're perpetuating the use of these toxins in the world around us.

Then there are GMOs, Genetically Modified Organisms.  These crops have been altered with DNA from a strain of bacteria created to be resistant to glyphosate (so they can spray as much as they want) and to contain toxins that kill insects when they try to eat the crops.  These crops can also be harmful to us, possibly leading to infertility, digestive issues and malabsorption of nutrients.  (A lot of info on this here.) [Won't get in to the whole Monstanto preying on small farmers and developing countries, but watch Food Inc. and you'll know what we're talking about.]  When we choose non-organic, we support GMOs and the companies behind them. 

Distrust of USDA

Each time the USDA approves another genetically modified crop by Monsanto, it loses credibility with many people.  Couple this with the bizarre school lunch requirements that count french fries as vegetables (although this seems to be changing with new regulations) plus deep-seeded corporate ties and you have a bad reputation on your hands.  I've seen comments on social media from people saying "I don't trust the USDA so the USDA organic seal means nothing to me."  On the surface this may seem like sound logic, but really, if you look in to it, it's quite a contradictory statement. 

The NOP (National Organic Program) is one very small office inside the USDA.  It doesn't work with or answer to any other offices within the USDA.  Because the regulations are set forth by the independent council of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the NOP doesn't answer to anyone else inside the USDA, just the NOSB.  NOP regulations are very specific, so there is little room for misinterpretation, corruption, or influence.  If a company breaks the rules, they're fined and/or stripped of their certification.  Distrust of the (general offices of the) USDA to protect our food supply from GMOs and harmful pesticides would be the exact reason to choose organic.  Choosing organic is the only way you can know that you're buying products that don't expose you to these harmful substances.

The organic industry is set up with checks and balances between government and private agencies.  If a third-party certifier breaks the rules, the USDA will fine them $10,000 per infraction.  This could be as simple as not keeping the right paperwork on file. Certifiers work very carefully not to make mistakes or let things slide because their entire business is on the line.  The same goes for an organic farm or organic processing facility.  Speaking as one myself, our certification isn't something that we take lightly.  Additionally, if a farm or operation is going to go through the trouble of getting certification, it usually means that they have true dedication to organic principles.  Organic farming isn't easy.  There is much more work involved than with conventional farming where you would just load the ground up with fertilizer, plant seeds, and spray pesticides everywhere. With organic farming, crop rotation must be planned, compost created properly, natural pest control methods decided upon and documented.  This could mean going tree-to-tree distributing handfuls of ladybugs.  Weeds would have to be pulled by hand or sprayed individually with approved substances like a clove essential oil mixture.  This is why organic ingredients are more expensive; it's labor intensive. And usually there's less yield.  Organic farmers will, a lot of the time, grow a variety of crops that are rotated to keep the soil fertile.  Some crops are more profitable than others.  And while a conventional farm might be able to dedicate all of their land to the most profitable crop, only a portion of an organic farm can be dedicated to the cash crops.  So, when it comes to certification, there's a lot on the line.  If a farm decides to use an unapproved substance, or even mistakenly does so, and they lose their certification, all of the hard work they've done is down the drain.  So, on the side of the farmer, processor, or certifier, there's a lot at stake to follow the rules.  And plus, most of the people in the industry that have chosen to go organic have done it for a reason, because they know it's the right thing to do.  It's not easy, but it's their passion.

Organic Cheaters

All of this said, we do acknowledge that it's not a perfect system, and we can't say that there aren't organic cheaters, people who illegally use the seal.   Check out our previous article that will help you spot organic cheaters.  (One that we pointed out back then has now been forced to take the USDA Organic seal from their website and products due to its illegal use.)  There are ways that you can spot organic cheaters.  The biggest thing is to look for the seal of their third-party certifying agency.  You can also look up a company here to verify their certification.   

The Deal with the Seal

What it means to you when you see the USDA Organic seal:
  • Ingredients grown and processed with only organic-approved substances, (no organophosphates, etc)
  • No artificial colors (colors from juices, etc, only.) 
  • No artificial flavors
  • No GMOs
  • No contact with sewage sludge
  • No contact with ionizing radiation
  • Non-agricultural ingredients in a product must be on the approved substances list (like baking soda and salt) and have to be GMO free and not processed with sewage sludge or ionizing radiation.  
  • Ingredients on ingredient list are exactly what's in the product and verified by a third party.  (Otherwise you're trusting the company to tell you the ingredients. Without certification you end up with ingredients lists with things like "natural cream base" or shampoos that don't disclose the exact detergent they're using.) 
The USDA Organic seal is the gold standard for organic certification in the world.  And there is no separate certification standard for personal care products.  The same rules that apply to foods apply to us as well.  We are proud to make our own USDA organic products in our certified organic facility and are committed, more than ever, to these important standards.  


figwittage said...

and this is why I love you and your amazing company! Thanks for writing this, it helped me understand a lot more :)

Anonymous said...

Could it be that this company will still use organic ingredients without being certified? There are several small farms where I am from that use higher standards than required for organic certification but cannot afford to be certified.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

@Anonyous--from what they've indicated, they will be changing some of their ingredients to their "conventional" (non-organic) counterparts.

Stephani said...

Curiously, I don't know which company this is! I was pretty sure that I was in the loop! Must not be a company that I use! (Hopefully)...

Natural Pathfinder said...

As always Stephanie I like your posts and believe in your company. I have heard of a movement "Beyond Organic", I think I first read about it in "Omnivore's Dilemma"? There are also a few farmers in upstate New York that are working to a higher standard too? They are local movements to keep costs down where you can speak with the farmers directly and ask how your food is grown.