Saturday, June 23, 2007

Label Watch: Annie's Homegrown and the "it's-too-hard-to-find-organic-ingredients" defense

Time has expired on the USDA's attempt to allow 38 non-organically grown ingredients as exceptions in certified organic food when their organic counterparts are unavailable.

Among the most objectionable items that were under consideration: conventionally grown hops for organic beer (thanks to whining from Anheuser-Busch, which says supply is too limited - or else doesn't want to pay the premium).

That most of the rest of the other ingredients were "natural" colors and flavors used in processed food has not escaped skeptics. The reason that companies are asking for exceptions is that the organically grown supply of things like elderberry juice (for turning foods red or purple) falls far short of what Big Organic needs to meet skyrocketing demand.

Annatto, one of the ingredients on the USDA's list, provides an illuminating example of what's wrong with the motivations behind approving these exceptions.

Annatto is a natural food coloring derived from the reddish pulp surrounding the seed pods of Bixa orellana, also known as achiote, which grows in tropical zones. John Foraker, CEO of Annie's Homegrown company - famous makers of boxed pasta products for kids - argued in his change-the-rules petition letter to the USDA that "Organic annatto is not readily available and does not deliver the same cheese color. Making orange colored macaroni and cheese is an important element of our offering. Without annatto, our macaroni-and-cheese products would be white" (as quoted in the Times; the USDA does not seem to have posted the comments it's received on this change, as it often does).