Politics of the Plate: An Organic Loophole, and an Outdated Recall

A proposed rule requires organic cows to graze outdoors, and the FDA covers up an oversight by backdating a recall on contaminated cookies.
koala cookies

Mooooooooving in the Right Direction

I was traveling last week and was away from dependable Internet access (and decent newspapers), so I am grateful to blogger and Gourmet contributor Samuel Fromartz for reporting on a very positive step taken last Thursday by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to close a loophole in organic standards big enough for a mature Holstein cow (actually several thousand of them) to walk through.

The way regulations are currently worded, organic livestock are required only to have “access” to pasture. Despite protests and legal action from organic advocacy groups such as The Cornucopia Institute, industrial-scale organic dairies interpreted “access” very broadly. Yeah, the thousands of cows in their huge barns could, in theory, have been pastured, but they spent very little, if any, time there, instead passing their lives crammed haunch-to-haunch in filthy, barren feedlots. Take a look at the way these cows live and come to your own conclusions.

After eight years and 85,000 letters of complaint from consumers and concerned organizations, the USDA agreed that such conditions fit no one’s idea of “organic.” If the new regulations become law (a comment period runs until Dec. 23), feedlots such as the one in the above photographs will not be allowed on organic farms, and organic cows will be required to graze in real pastures throughout the growing season—at least 120 days in northern areas and up to 365 days in regions where grass grows year round.

Cows out in the fresh air. Moving around. Grazing on fresh grass, just like nature intended. I can drink to that.

Back to the Future at the FDA

Experimenting with time travel is not exactly the Food and Drug Administration’s mandate, but Winonah Hauter at Food and Water Watch is of the opinion that someone at the FDA has invented a time machine.

In late September, Canadian authorities recalled Koala’s March cookies, which were imported from China and found to be contaminated with melamine, a chemical that can cause kidney failure. At the time, the FDA assured Food and Water Watch that Koala’s March cookies sold in the United States were safe.

The agency apparently had second thoughts on Oct. 17 and issued a recall announcement that was effectively backdated to Sept. 29, meaning that Americans had been munching on potentially contaminated “recalled” treats for nearly three weeks before being warned.

It boggles the mind.

But officials at the FDA can be forgiven for not alerting us to potentially fatal contamination in imported food. They must be too busy. In the waning months of the Bush administration, the agency has been working overtime to please big businesses by stripping away regulatory protection.

A lot of this deregulation is being done on the QT. So I’ve decided to maintain a scorecard in this space as more instances become public. The tally so far:

January 2008: The FDA says that meat and milk from cloned animals is safe to eat.

August 2008: The FDA says it’s OK to have levels of the chemical Bisphenol A in plastic bottles, even though some countries have banned its use because it can disrupt hormone function.

August 2008: The FDA gives its blessing to irradiating spinach and lettuce.

September 2008: The FDA issues guidelines aimed at paving the way for genetically modified meat and fish in our diets.

October 2008: The FDA establishes “safe” limits for the poisonous chemical melamine in food, while most other countries ban milk products from China outright because of melamine contamination.

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