beer and brats

It’s happening again — the USDA is scheming to water down organic standards for key products. This time, the targets are that sacred duo, beer and sausage.

Beer is composed essentially of two agricultural products: barley and hops. If the USDA gets its way, makers of “organic” beer will be able to use conventionally grown hops.

And sausage is made up essentially of ground meat stuffed into casing made of animal intestines. The USDA would like manufacturers to be able to use intestines from conventionally raised animals.

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According to Food Navigator, the USDA hopes to add 38 substances to the list of ingredients manufacturers can use conventionally grown versions of, when an organic version is unavailable.

The USDA has declared that:

Because these substances are critical to organic production and handling operations, producers and handlers should be able to use them in their operations as soon as possible.

For example, the USDA wants manufacturers to be able to use juice from conventionally grown beets as a food coloring, and still call the final product organic. But are organic beets really so hard to come by? And to what part of organic production are food colorings “critical”?

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I suppose if the industrial food giants insist on making all manner of “organic” convenience food, and people insist on buying it, conventional beet juice is better than some patented chemical whose name is a long string of numbers.

But the hops business is an outrage. Organic beer is growing in popularity, and the mega-brewers want a piece of the action. In fact, Anheuser-Busch has already rolled out two organic beers, Wild Hop lager and Stone Mill pale ale. (I print their names so you won’t be bamboozled into mistaking these macrobrews for microbrews.)

When corporate behemoths lurch into a market, they tend to buy inputs in huge quantities, pushing up prices. And that’s what’s happened to organic hops, whose price has surged.

Rather than pay those prices in hopes of inspiring more organic hops production, the big brewers would rather churn out swill like Stone Mill using conventional hops, while still calling the product “organic.” To which the USDA is essentially saying, “Go for it.”

There are two messages here. First, do your part to oppose this bit of chicanery. The ever-vigilant Organic Consumers Association has details on what you can do.

Second, don’t just try to eat from within your foodshed — drink from within it as well. Reject the attempts of corporate brewers to use the organic label and microbrew-like packaging to trick you into handing them your money.

The excellent Beer Advocate has a state-by-state listing of literally thousands of U.S. microbreweries. If you want truly organic beer, you have a better shot of convincing your local microbrewery that there’s a market for it than you do relying on the USDA to ensure that organic beer contains organic hops.

As for “organic” sausage stuffed into feedlot intestines — don’t even get me started.