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Cornucopia Institute Goes Public with Charges of Regulatory Abuse and Violations of Federal Law in the Organic Industry

In what may be the most scathing report the organic industry has ever seen, The Cornucopia Institute, the leading organic farming watchdog organization, has just released a white-paper called The Organic Watergate.

The Organic Watergate (PDF File) details an incredibly close relationship between the USDA and corporate agribusiness, which has not only undermined the integrity of the organic industry but has allowed for very questionable and potentially dangerous ingredients to be approved for use in organic food products.


In its report, Cornucopia details violations of federal law and ignoring congressional intent, both of which have created a climate of regulatory abuse and corporate exploitation. Examples include:

– the USDA has stacked the 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) with agribusiness executives that have “sold out” the interests of organic farmers and consumers.

The most egregious example of this was when the NOSB approved DHA/ARA synthetic nutrient oils to be used in certified organic products.

These DHA/ARA additives are derived from genetically-mutated algae and soil fungus, are processed with petrochemical solvents, grown in genetically-engineered corn, and formulated for use in infant formula, dairy and other products with a myriad of other unreviewed synthetic ingredients.

I wrote about this DHA/ARA controversy several months ago and my post included the specific products that contain this very questionable additive. I would never, ever feed these products to my family, despite the fact that they are USDA certified organic.

– The NOSB is legally obligated to rely on technical reviews, by impartial scientists, of any synthetic materials that are petitioned for use in organics. Yet, its behavior has indicated otherwise.

Cornucopia found that a small handful of scientists, working for corporate agribusiness, supplied the “independent” analyses to the NOSB. In one example, an executive for Ralston Purina/Beech Nut, Dr. Richard Theuer, authored 45 of 50 technical reviews during a two-year period in the 1990s.

In the mid-1990s, the NOSB approved the food ingredient carrageenen, a stabilizer and thickening agent for use in organic food.  Theuer and two other agribusiness-related food scientists reviewed carrageenan without emphasizing its impacts on human health and the environment. Carrageenan, derived from seaweed, has been widely used in conventional foods for decades.

“Carrageenan is a well-documented inflammatory agent that has been found, in thousands of experiments in human cells and animals, to cause harmful effects, and low molecular weight carrageenan has been recognized by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Research Council of the United States as a possible human carcinogen,” said Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a leading researcher on carrageenan and its human health impacts at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

(Despite the fact that carrageenen is approved for use in organics, I would never consume an organic food product that contains it.)

According to Mark Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, “one of the newest contractors to fulfill this review function is The Organic Center, the non-profit offshoot of the Organic Trade Association, an agribusiness lobby group. This is the proverbial fox watching the organic chicken coop.”

The Organic Center’s board is chaired by Mark Retzloff, President of Aurora Dairy, a giant factory farm milk producer bottling private-label organic milk for Walmart, Costco and Target. Aurora was found by the USDA in 2007 to have “willfully” violated 14 tenets of federal organic law—likely the largest scandal in organic industry history.

Charlotte Valleys, Director of Food and Farm Policy for Cornucopia, said that “The Organic Center board members have worked, over the years, for many of the very companies seeking approval for use of synthetics in organic food. Talk about a conflict of interest.”


Make no mistake about it – organics is big business. It is now a $30 billion dollar industry and is certainly not immune to corruption and flagrant conflicts of interest.

This report by Cornucopia, a watchdog organization that I respect very much, is a big negative for the organic industry and will give ammunition for advocates of conventional, genetically-modified food.

However, The Cornucopia Institute has contacted and brought its concerns to the attention of top USDA political appointees, the National Organic Program leadership and staff, the Organic Trade Association, and manufacturers. For the most part, Cornucopia said it has been ignored or slandered.

Whatever short-term damage The Organic Watergate will cause, I believe that it will serve to bring about positive, much-needed, long-term structural change in the industry.

Does this report mean that I will stop eating organic food as a result?

Absolutely not.

Despite problems at the NOSB, there are fewer than 300, mostly benign, non-organic and synthetic compounds that have been approved for use in organics. That number is dwarfed by the many thousands of chemicals used in conventional food production, many of them highly toxic and carcinogenic.

Furthermore, organic prohibits the use of very risky GMOs, which are widely used in conventional food production.

The Cornucopia Institute is collecting signed proxies, downloadable from their website’s home page, asking organic industry stakeholders, including farmers and consumers, to sign the proxy and join in the demand that the USDA operate the organic program legally.

I’ll be signing/sending in my proxy (PDF File) to Cornucopia and hope you will as well.

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