I'm feeling a little feisty today. You're forewarned.
It all started with the barrage of inanity that I encountered on my groceries. The worst is always on products aimed at children, which means I will 'fess up to a love of chocolate Teddy Grahams. You get a chocolate fix without too much damage to the hips. Twenty four little teddies for only 140 calories. Lots of good munching. But as I do, I have to contemplate the "fun activity" they promote on the back of the box:
Mom, spark your child's imagination with this fun snack activity! Teddy Milk Float. Pour 1 cup fat free milk into a tall glass or large mug. Add 24 Teddy Grahams, a few at a time. Serve with a long spoon to scoop out and eat the graham snacks, and a fun straw to slurp up the milk.
Three years ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture employees determined that synthetic additives in organic baby formula violated federal standards and should be banned from a product carrying the federal organic label. Today the same additives, purported to boost brainpower and vision, can be found in 90 percent of organic baby formula.
The government's turnaround, from prohibition to permission, came after a USDA program manager was lobbied by the formula makers and overruled her staff. That decision and others by a handful of USDA employees, along with an advisory board's approval of a growing list of non-organic ingredients, have helped numerous companies win a coveted green-and-white "USDA Organic" seal on an array of products.
Grated organic cheese, for example, contains wood starch to prevent clumping. Organic beer can be made from non-organic hops. Organic mock duck contains a synthetic ingredient that gives it an authentic, stringy texture.
Relaxation of the federal standards, and an explosion of consumer demand, have helped push the organics market into a $23 billion-a-year business, the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Half of the country's adults say they buy organic food often or sometimes, according to a survey last year by the Harvard School of Public Health.
I will admit these are the things that make me wonder how stupid people think women really are. Now we're not the only ones reading inane advertising. Nor are we the only ones buying food for our families. But these examples cited above are targeted at us in large measure. So I rejoice when common people can leverage influence by market forces or through social networking and so forth to bring about change. But even as I say that, I know it's not really a gender issue. Because from the Post's account, it's a woman at the USDA who has been responsible for some of the unilateral changes in the federal standards for organic labeling.
Today, labels on organic infant formula boast that they include DHA and ARA, synthetic fatty acids that some studies suggest can help neural development. But according to agency records, when the issue came before the USDA in 2006, agency staff members concluded that the fatty acids could not be added to organic baby formula because they are synthetics that are not on the standards board's approved list.
The fatty acids in formula are often produced using a potential neurotoxin known as hexane, prompting many organics advocates to conclude that the board would not approve their use if it took up the matter.
In a rare move, Barbara Robinson, who administers the organics program and is a deputy USDA administrator, overruled the staff decision after a telephone call and an e-mail exchange with William J. Friedman, a lawyer who represents the formula makers.
"I called [Robinson] up," Friedman said. "I wrote an e-mail. It was a simple matter." The back-and-forth, he said, was nothing more than part of the routine process that sets policy in Washington.
In an interview, Robinson said she agreed with Friedman's argument that fatty acids were not permitted because of an oversight. Vitamins and minerals are allowed, but "accessory nutrients" -- the category that describes fatty acids -- are not specifically named.
As for hexane, Robinson said the law bans its use in processing organic food, but she does not believe the ban extends to the processing of synthetic additives.
"We don't attempt to say how synthetic products can be produced," she said.
Manufacturers say the fatty acids are safe and provide health benefits to infants.
"We test every lot that comes out for hexane, and there is no residue," said David Abramson, president of Maryland-based Martek Biosciences, which produces the fatty acids used by formula companies.
Several groups have filed complaints with the USDA saying they think that the inclusion of the fatty acids in organic products violates federal rules and laws. And they say that Robinson did not have the authority to make the decision on her own.
"This is illegal rulemaking -- a complete violation of the process that is supposed to protect the public," said Gary Cox, a lawyer with the Cornucopia Institute, an organics advocacy group.
Cox and others make the same argument about other decisions by Robinson and several members of her staff.
In 2004, Robinson issued a directive allowing farmers and certifiers to use pesticides on organic crops if "after a reasonable effort" they could not determine whether the pesticide contained chemicals prohibited by the organics law.
The same year, Robinson determined that farmers could feed organic livestock non-organic fish meal, which can contain mercury and PCBs. The law requires that animals that produce organic meat be raised entirely on organic feed.
After sharp protests from Leahy, Consumers Union and other groups, Ann Veneman, then agriculture secretary, rescinded these and two other directives issued by Robinson.
The orders were signed by a staff member, but Robinson took responsibility, saying she had made the decisions unwisely without consulting organics experts, certifiers or the standards board.
I failed, and take this as a learning experience and do not want it to happen again," she told board members in 2004.
Earlier this year, however, Robinson issued a series of directives without consulting experts, certifiers or the board. She said that because the issues were urgent, including one on food safety, she had to act quickly.
In an interview, Robinson said she believes the federal program's main purpose is to "grow the industry," and she dismissed controversies over synthetics in organic foods as "mostly ridiculous."
Still with me here? This is a long blog post, but if you're like me, you are too twitchy to make the jump to outside links. So that's why I included most of this article. I wanted to be fair to what was being said about this issue.
I think the last paragraph is key. Robinson believes her mission is not to protect consumers, but to grow an industry. Wow. And I was under the delusion it was the other way around since we taxpayers fund the USDA.
That's why I'm grateful for the kind of system that we have where we can demand accountability of our government. It's not the greatest, but it does work on many occasions. And there are times when the "special interests" we can complain about so often are actually our own special interests. As in those who lobby to make sure organic food is actually free of the additives we do not want. Especially in baby formula. Because if I were buying organic baby formula I would definitely not want hexane to be ANYWHERE in the chain of production. That's why I would choose organic. Get it? That's what really choosy moms do. They choose to keep their children away from potential neurotoxins whenever possible.
When you find out how things really are not what they seem, it can be tempting to float a teddy graham in a glass of milk and try to forget it all. Or to organize a people's collective and become a professional radical activist. One of those two. Power to the People. Slurp.
Then I take a deep breath and remember that all of this is under God. All that's done and said and written and manufactured and consumed--every word, deed, and thought--is done coram Deo. I can't possibly be vigilant enough to protect myself or my loved ones from every bad or deceptive action taken by others. Or even protect them from every silly or banal marketing slogan. I have only a certain amount of time in the day to gather information and then I must make a decision and go forward, trusting God for the outcome. Just as the Proverbs 31 woman is commended for doing, we women are all called to watch over the affairs of our households (v. 27), but this is not done as though we are the last line of defense. It has to be done acknowledging the limits of our creatureliness. We are not omniscient. It might seem that Google can provide that edge, but it doesn't. Really. We can't be paralyzed by either a lack of or a surplus of information. We have a responsibility to do what we can with what is in front of us today, trusting God for the tomorrows He sovereignly supervises.