Whose Organic Standards?

USDA'S New Proposed Regulations Are Unacceptable


Special to The Progressive Populist

Watch out what you ask for, you just might get it. Since 1990, the natural foods industry has been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish new federal rules to define "organic" food, rules which supposedly will promote consumer demand and expand the number of organic farms. Now, in a remarkable turnabout, the rules proposed by the USDA on December 16 threaten the very credibility and future of the organic and natural foods industry.

At stake in finalizing the new "organic" standards is the fastest growing and most profitable segment of the food market. The U.S. organic food industry has grown from $78 million in 1980 to an estimated $4.2 billion in 1996, and is expanding by nearly 20 percent each year. The proposed rules by the USDA degrade current standards, open the door for large agribusiness companies, processors, and supermarket chains to enter and dominate the organic food market, and preempt natural food consumers, independent retailers, and farmers involvement in future rules regarding organic food.

The nervous shiver down the spine of the organic foods industry comes from the USDA's lack of specific prohibitions for genetically engineered foods, irradiated foods, intensive confinement of farm animals, rendered animal parts in feed, and the use of toxic sewage sludge spread over farmlands and pastures.

To allow these controversial practices, the new USDA rules run directly counter to the practices of organic farmers around the country and in Europe. Currently the labeling of organic food is dictated by varying, but relatively strict, standards used by 17 states and 33 private certifying agencies. None of these agencies currently allow genetic engineering, irradiation, intensive confinement, rendered animal protein, or toxic sewage sludge within their definitions of organic food. Besides lowering pre-existing standards, the new USDA rules would deny states and localities from setting tougher organic food standards, without first being approved by the USDA. In this regard industry experts are quite skeptical that the USDA would allow stricter standards, since strict organic standards would represent an implicit, if not explicit, condemnation of current conventional agricultural practices.

In fact, the USDA's rules are a direct affront to the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) -- composed of industry representatives, farmers, environmentalists and food processors. The NOSB, established by the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, made recommendations to the USDA that explicitly banned genetically engineered foods, irradiation, farming with sewage sludge, and intensive confinement factory farm type animal husbandry practices.

By proposing these watered-down standards, the USDA opens the door for several powerful industries to enter the organic foods market. The proposed rules will undergo a 90-120 day comment period, giving the waste disposal, biotech, and nuclear industries an opportunity to lobby hard to expand the market for their products. Organic food consumers will have an equal opportunity to voice their opinions during the comment period, and given their outrage over the proposed standards, they are likely to generate large numbers of comments.

The USDA is caught in a familiar predicament given the agency's dual role. On the one hand it is set up ostensibly to protect consumers by ensuring a safe food supply and guarantee the economic livelihood of America's farmers, the majority of whom continue to operate small and medium-sized farms. On the other hand, USDA also sees as its role to promote the industrialization and globalization of American agriculture -- which means working closely with large agribusiness, chemical, and biotechnology corporations. The natural food industry, with its small stores, small family farms, and discriminating consumers, has begun to pose a direct threat to the market share of large-scale agribusiness. Therefore agribusiness would like nothing more than to infiltrate this burgeoning market.

The strength of the organic food market can be seen in the growing number of organic sections appearing in major supermarket chains. A quarter of all shoppers buy "natural" or organic foods in supermarkets at least once a week, according to the Organic Trade Association. In a national poll last February, 54 percent of American consumers told industry pollsters that their preference was for organic production.

In addition to the weak rules on controversial practices, the proposed standards solidify the power of the USDA for future decisions on organics. The Organics Food Production Act intended for any additions to the organic rules, such as the inclusion of new synthetic or genetically engineered crops, to go through the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB). But the Preamble to the new rules and the USDA's redefinition of substances such as sewage sludge as "natural" rather than "synthetic" seem to open the door for the USDA to make the final decision on new additions on its own.

In addition, government officials (under NAFTA regulations the Labor Department) would have unilateral power to declare the "equivalency" of organic food standards in other nations such as Mexico. Given the lack of current regulations and enforcement in Mexico over agricultural production, this could mean a flood of supposedly "organic" products crossing the border which would undermine American organic farmers operating under stricter standards and higher production costs.

On the surface this seems to be a debate over semantics. What is organic food? But dig deeper and you will find the livelihood of 12,000 or so organic farmers nationwide, scores of thousands of natural food businesses and employees, and the right for several million U.S. consumers to buy organic food that reflects natural farming and production methods. After the 90-120 day comment period, let's hope the USDA understands that these standards need to retain the integrity of the word organic. If they don't, perhaps we're better off without any federal organic standards at all.

Ronnie Cummins is national director of the Pure Food Campaign/SOS (Save Organic Standards). Contact him at 860 Hwy 61 Little Marais, MN 55614; phone (218)-226-4164; email:

Stand up for your rights!

Here's what you can do to save organic standards

-- Form an SOS Action Network in your local area. Collect the names and contact information (including telephone and fax numbers and email addresses) of others who feel passionately about these issues and are ready to take action. Have those with email addresses subscribe to Food Bytes, our free electronic newsletter, by sending an email to: with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action

-- Have natural food retail stores, coops, community restaurants, and farmers markets contact the SOS campaign by telephone, fax, or email to set up an in-store leaflet and SOS "ballot box" display. Encourage coops and businesses to use these displays so that consumers can write official comment letters to the USDA and their legislators while they are shopping for organic foods.

-- Send a letter, fax, or email to the USDA (to the address and docket number listed below) demanding that they maintain strict organic standards by explicitly prohibiting the unacceptable agricultural practices listed in this Alert. Demand also that they allow private and state organic certification bodies to maintain stricter organic standards than those the USDA requires. Remind the USDA that this is a basic issue of free speech and of consumers' right to choose. Ask your organic food store to provide materials so that consumers can write comment letters while they are shopping.

-- Make copies of your letter to the USDA and send them to your legislators and local media. Follow up with a telephone call to their local district offices. Tell them that, as a constituent, you want them to put their position on organic standards in writing so that this can be forwarded on to the USDA.

-- Don't forget to contact natural food outlets, consumer coops, farmers markets, environmental and public interest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-oriented restaurants in your area and get them involved in the SOS campaign.

Letters to the USDA should be sent to:
USDA--National Organic Standards
Docket # TMD-94-00-2
USDA, AMS, Room 4007-S, AgStop 0275,
P.O. Box 96456
Washington, D.C. 20090-6456

Fax: 202-690-4632 (Include Docket Number)
email: see USDA web site

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