Large-scale organic food producers have beaten back an effort to strengthen national organic standards. The Organic Trade Association, which represents 1,600 farmers, distributors and grocers, had feared that stricter standards would hinder the industry’s growth.

Federal organic standards adopted in 2002 permitted some synthetic substances to be used in processing organic foods. If an organic ingredient was not commercially available, manufacturers could use a conventional equivalent without informing consumers. And dairy cows in transition to organic production were allowed to eat some conventional feed during the year leading up to organic certification of their milk.

In June, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that those standards were inconsistent with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The court determined that most synthetic substances approved under the 2002 standards cannot be used in processing organic food. It said that dairy herds converting to organic production must receive 100 percent organic feed, and it tightened oversight of substitutions for organic ingredients.

But in October, the Organic Trade Association asked Congress to amend the act, and a last-minute rider to an appropriations bill effectively reversed the Appeals Court ruling.

The rider also could strip the National Organic Standards Board of its power to regulate synthetic substances that are used during processing but don’t appear on a product’s ingredient list. Only 38 synthetic substances are currently allowed in organic foods, but that number could skyrocket under the new law.

"We’re concerned that the amendment could allow a whole host of processing aids and synthetic substances to be added without any review," says Joe Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety.

The author is an HCN intern.