A July 3 Washington Post story suggesting oversight of organic standards has been lax drew criticism from the Organic Trade Association and one of the sources quoted.

Article draws fire for criticizing lax organic standards
Chuck Robinson
Media Watch

One line in the 2,000-word article really popped out. It was from Joe Smillie, a member of the National Organic Standards Board and senior vice president of the certifying firm Quality Assurance International, San Diego.

“People are hung up on regulations … What are we selling? Are we selling health food? No. Consumers, they expect organic food to be growing in a greenhouse on Pluto. Hello? We live in a polluted world. It isn’t pure. We are doing the best we can.”

A spokeswoman for Quality Assurance International issued a statement explaining Smillie’s comments were taken out of context. With the comment about regulations, the statement explains regulations have ambiguities and people get hung up on the wording.

The Pluto comment was the crux of the situation, the statement said.

“Farmers grow their organic crops in an environment of inadvertent contamination,” the statement explains, and later says, “Organic is not a health claim but an agricultural methodology that benefits the environment.”

The OTA in a statement corrected the number of nonorganic and synthetic substances allowed in U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic products and other inaccuracies.

Mostly the article dealt with infant formula and dairy products.

I accept the clarifications as offered, though I disagree with the comment about organic being a growing methodology, at least in part. Yes, it is a method of growing to benefit the environment, but people take comfort in the lack of nonorganic substances. They think it more healthful, and the healthfulness of organic products is implied in the very word.

While I accept the clarifications, I also won’t bash the Washington Post reporters, tired old journalist that I am.

They had a whiff of something.

After all, when Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan on June 4 addressed the Organic Summit in Stevenson, Wash., and promised stronger enforcement for National Organic Program standards. Her supervisor, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, also has vowed in his first weeks on the job to protect the purity of the organic label.

Plus, most of us are familiar with the scandal when Earthbound Farm was hoodwinked by an “organic” fertilizer supplier. That story broke at the end of last year.

Another story on organics ran July 27 on the front of the Marketplace section of The Wall Street Journal. It talked about how organic retailers were marketing lower-cost, private-label products to keep consumers who have become more budget conscious.

We know the push to cut costs can lead to cutting corners.

In light of these factors, it seems important not to kill the golden goose of organics. The cachet of the organic label can be sullied to the point of parody and made worthless.

The Washington Post article gave voice to these concerns, even if the reporters couldn’t grasp the intricacies of regulations of organics and the industry. We need to take heed.

E-mail crobinson@thepacker.com

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