Watchdog says companies' packaging violates labeling laws

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

An organic watchdog and advocacy group is again calling food companies to task for putting organic on the outside of their packaging but not on the inside.

Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, said the USDA needs to crack down on three companies in particular.

Cornucopia filed complaints with the USDA's National Organic Program and the Federal Trade Commission, highlighting what it calls labeling improprieties in three food brands: Oskri Organics, Organic Bistro and Newman's Own Organics.

"The statutes are restrictive in the use of the word 'organic,'" Kastel said. "All three of these have their 'organic' name prominently displayed on their packaging, but they do not legally qualify as organic."

Cornucopia contends that USDA already has the authority, under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and current organic regulations, to take action against the misuse of the word "organic" in company names.

"The most egregious offender is Oskri Organics," Kastel alleged. Oskri sells a variety of foods, including fruit preserves, nutrition bars and tahini, which is ground sesame seeds. Some of their products, however, contain no certified organic ingredients, he said.

Organic Bistro sells frozen entrees made with organic vegetables, but uses non-organic chicken and turkey, he claimed.

"There is certainly no shortage of organic chicken or organic turkey, which are, obviously, more expensive than conventional meats," he said.

Newman's Own Organics -- "the most recognizable of these," he said -- sells some certified organic products and some that only qualify for the "made with organic" label with 70 percent organic content, yet uses the term "organics" in its name on all food packages.

Kastel described seeing a package of Newman's Ginger-Os, labeled as organic ginger cookies.

"But the marquee ingredient -- the ginger -- was not even organic," he said. "Right next to it was a package of cookies made with organic ginger, so that ingredient is obviously available."

"For 17 years Newman's Own Organics has been certified by Oregon Tilth, an independent third-party certifier accredited by the USDA's National Organic Program," Newman's spokeswoman Sally Shepard said.

Neither Oskri Organics nor Organic Bistro responded to requests for comment.

"Current organic standards specify that processed foods that are represented as organic must contain 95 to 100 percent organically produced raw or processed agricultural products," Charlotte Vallaeys, farm and food policy analyst at Cornucopia, said. "The only minor ingredients allowed that are not certified organic must be unavailable in organic form and approved by the National Organic Standards Board."

"It's a workaround," Kastel said. "They're gaming the system. It's unfair to everyone in the organic food system, from the manufacturer all the way back to the farmer, who go to the effort and expense of being certified organic."

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