Safety groups criticize changes to federal organic program

The USDA lets companies label their foods as organic if they meet a set of production and handling standards.

Before the policy change, substances that would not normally be allowed in organic foods could be included for a five-year period as a way to encourage food producers to try new organic alternatives. The substances could stay for longer if 15-member USDA advisory board signed off.

The new policy eliminated that five-year deadline, known as the sunset period, and automatically allows otherwise exempt substances to be approved for use indefinitely unless they are blocked by a two-thirds majority of the advisory board.

The new process also includes meetings and opportunities for the public to weigh in, which will "improve public participation and transparency and ensure well-informed decision making about substances that are critical in organic production and handling," the agency said in its notice about the policy change.

But consumer safety groups argue that the change makes it easier for companies to put artificial products in their organic foods and undermines the USDA's certification system.

“The USDA’s decision minimizes all incentives for creating organic, natural alternative ingredients and lowers the standard for what consumers can expect behind the organic label,” said a joint statement from Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides and the Center for Food Safety.

“It is unfair to producers trying to produce a truly organic product and it is unfair to consumers trying to make meaningful purchasing decisions,” they added. “Simply put, this lowers the bar for much of the organic market."

In their statement, the groups said that they would launch a “fierce campaign” to get the USDA to change its course.