At issue is whether small amounts of non-organic ingredients, vitamins, spices, citric acid, even carbonation, should be allowed in food bearing theseal.
An appeals court decided earlier this year that none of those things belongs in food labeled as organic. Lawmakers could decide as early as Tuesday whether they want to override the ruling.
The dispute started with Arthur Harvey, an organic blueberry farmer from Maine. Harvey sued the government in 2002 for allowing products containing synthetic ingredients to be sold as organic, among other things.
"The basic principle of the law is that anything labeled organic has to be 95 percent organic and 100 percent natural. I think that's a pretty simple principle," Harvey said in an interview.
The idea may be simple for Harvey and farmers like him to follow, but it's more complicated when food is processed. To make blueberries into jam, for example, or milk into yogurt, thickening usually requires pectin. Pectin comes from fruit peels, but because of how it's made, it's considered synthetic.
That is why, over the years, the government has allowed pectin and dozens of other non-organic or synthetic ingredients into processed food. Food labeled "organic" must have at least 95 percent organic ingredients; exceptions for pectin and other ingredients apply to the other 5 percent.
At New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farm, the biggest organic yogurt maker, the court ruling jeopardizes 90 percent of the company's products, said Nancy Hirshberg, a company vice president. If the ruling stands, she said, Stonyfield will have to replace the organic seal with the phrase "made with organic ingredients," a less marketable claim.
"Consumers aren't interested," Hirshberg said. "If we can't call it organic, and that means also charge the organic premium, can we really afford to make it as organic?"