Going wild

What is a “wild” crop? One that is not cultivated, correct? That certainly is my understanding of the word, wild. As far as I know there is no labeling standard for the various products that are called “wild,” and thus cultivated fruits can be in processed foods that are labeled wild.

Now, what if a beer is called Wild Hop Lager and bears the USDA seal that it is organic? As far as I know, there are no hops growing in the wild that are used by brewers anywhere, but you might assume that, even if the hops in this beer were cultivated, they at least would have been cultivated organically. Reasonable assumption, no? Uh, no. The hops in question are grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Of course, if you noticed that that Wild Hop Lager was produced by mega-factory brewer Anheuser Busch, you might be less surprised at the misleading labeling. The USDA has interpreted the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990 as allowing various ingredients that constitute a stipulated maximum percentage of the total product to be produced non-organically without disqualifying the product itself from bearing the USDA organic seal. And that list is about to be expanded, and the percentage of allowable non-organic ingredients in a product is about to be increased (to 5%).

What a shame that the USDA is allowing such debasing of the value of the organic label that products can have significant non-organic ingredients. Certainly hops are a significant ingredient in beer, even if a little goes a long way. (Well, not for me, but then I am hophead. I could eat them raw and have been known to enjoy a cup of hop tea now and then.)

I remember some years ago when there were discussions among organic producers about the mixed blessing of the then-budding mass interest in organic products. Of course, those of us who grow and consume organic products want the concept to spread–for both our own interests and those of the planet. But we knew it was inevitable that government agencies would begin to relax standards at the behest of the big-time processors and retailers, who can hire better-connected lobbyists than the committed organic growers can. An article from earlier this month in the LA Times, from which the not-wild, not-organic hop lager story comes, suggest that this relaxation of standards is very much underway.

My own advice is not only to look for the “organic” label, but to favor relatively smaller producers who specialize in organic whenever possible. If it is local, even better.

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