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Sound Consumer | July 2002

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

This month, I'll update two safety concerns: canola oil and a very disturbing situation concerning efforts by some in the poultry industry to derail organic poultry standards.

See below:
Canola oil update
Organic poultry challenge

Canola oil update
In the Sound Consumer dated April 2002, discussing consumers' safety concerns about Canola™ oil, I advised that canola oil is a hybrid form of rape, a type of mustard plant, and that canola per se, does not appear to have any health risks. Also, if organic, it is absolutely not genetically altered. Additionally, there is some conventionally grown, non-organic canola that is also simply a hybrid and has not been genetically altered.

Now, a new type of genetically altered canola seed patented by Monsanto — but not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for human consumption or by Department of Agriculture (USDA) for planting in the United States — "mysteriously" found its way into some non-organic canola acreage in the U.S.

This was disclosed only because Monsanto, in an apparent pre-emptive effort to avoid or mitigate any lawsuits or penalties, voluntarily notified the government of the "strayed" canola seeds. The FDA's response immediately was to reward Monsanto by indicating it was "almost through reviewing the seed" anyway and that it would send a letter to Monsanto assuring them it would be safe to eat and that the FDA would not need to further approve it for sale! My, my. It certainly pays to have friends in high places.

The fact is that pre-market reviews by the FDA are not required, only "requested" of companies sponsoring genetically engineered crops. Such reviews are not regarded as being in-depth or near adequate to assess safety. The FDA admits that the USDA had not yet finished its separate review to determine whether the new form of genetically altered seed would be considered safe for the environment.

The lesson to be learned? If you are concerned about avoiding genetically altered products and use canola, buy organic or look for label indications that the conventional canola was tested to screen out foreign DNA.

If you are not concerned about genetically altered foods, I suggest you visit the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org as well as look into pending legislation that would require labeling, testing, and other relief. See also www.thecampaign.org and drop an easy e-mail to your legislators. Check these sites out; you'll be glad you did.

Spectrum Naturals (and perhaps other companies) tests all canola oilseeds — which must be done prior to pressing the oil — to assure that neither the organic nor the non-organic oil contain foreign DNA. Naturally, they have labeled their products non-GMO (genetically modified organism), a truthful statement meant to reassure customers. Recently, the FDA sent Spectrum an unfriendly letter, warning that the FDA has not approved any non-GMO label claims and that such information on a label is considered illegal. It's really an upside down world sometimes, isn't it?

Organic poultry challenge
Get this. In Georgia, home of huge factory-farm chicken producers, a company named Fieldale Farms, is attempting to feather their nest big-time. They claim to be organic, yet admit they feed only 10 to 20 percent organic feed to their chickens, whereas national standards call for 100 percent certified organic feed from day one after hatching.

They say they produce 300,000 "organic" chickens weekly, yet in addition to the feed issue, it appears their facilities also do not provide access out of doors as will be required by the federal organic statute, which all producers must comply with after October 21, 2002.

These and other disturbing indications came to light during sharp questioning of these so-called "farmers" by some of us on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) last month, when the company spoke out in public hearings asking us to provide "variances" in standards just for them!

The company first stated there were insufficient organic grains available, then admitted that grains were available, but that it would not pay market rates for organic feed grains (which average two to three times that of conventional grains at this time). Both the L.A. Times and Atlanta Constitution have reported on this producer's position and on the efforts of eight U.S. Representatives from Georgia to bypass the entire National Organic Standards process at the USDA, by marching straight into the office of Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, demanding that she set aside the rules, for their benefit.

Overriding the organic regulatory process would profoundly affect the integrity of the organic standards and undermine trust in the process. The OFPA (Organic Foods Production Act of 1990) clearly established the authority for setting organic practices in the hands of the National Organic Program, acting on advice of the National Organic Standards Board members. In turn, the NOSB does not operate in a vacuum, but fully considers all stakeholders concerns in reaching its recommendations for organic standards.

If these turkeys (er, mega-producers) were to succeed in circumventing the regulatory system in place, you can bet that those of us on the NOSB, as well as all who are determined to keep "organic" organic, will be squawking loudly to overturn such actions.

Postscript: At press time, we learn that the USDA, apparently in response to the publicity this story received and the pressures put on the National Organic Program offices from both sides of the issue, has issued a statement saying it intends to implement fully the standards as written. This is very reassuring news, and we've stopped holding our breath.

But we remain prepared for future attempts to weaken the standards. We know you won't settle for "organic lite" and neither will we on the NOSB, nor the thousands of honest, dedicated, skilled producers of certified organic food who are fully committed to upholding the very highest standards on the planet.

Visit the national organic website at www.ams.usda.gov/nop and keep monitoring what we're doing.

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