Government Readies New Rules For Organic Farmers System Aimed At Product Uniformity

Eric Rice sorts through his organic apples, selecting for market only those that are large and red enough to appeal to consumers.

It’s not easy to grow such apples without pesticides or chemical fertilizers - it means, for instance, substituting natural predators such as wasps to kill unwanted insects - but this crop is Rice’s best in seven years.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we can compete with anybody on price and on quality - and for many years, we couldn’t,” said Rice, who grows apples, berries, flowers, vegetables, grapes and pears on his 75-acre farm in the rolling hills of northwest Maryland.

Now, the Department of Agriculture is about to announce the first national standards for organic food products - a system that will guarantee consumers are getting what they pay for. It should also validate the pro-environment efforts of organic farmers like Rice.

“I think a lot of people do equate organic with fresh and healthful,” he said. “It would help bring some uniformity in the way products are grown and marketed.”

Maryland and other states have certification programs for organic farmers, but many states do not. There have never been national standards to determine exactly when produce, processed foods and meat can be labeled and sold as organic.

Shoppers at a Washington, D.C., Fresh Fields store said they are attracted by its supermarket-size displays of products made without chemicals, additives or genetic engineering, even if they often cost more. The new rules, they said, would boost confidence that these products are legitimate.

“I want to get away from, or at least minimize, the chemicals I get from food,” said Lanetta Agnew. “I don’t know if what I’m getting is organic.”

The Organic Trade Association estimates there are up to 12,000 organic farmers in the United States, out of roughly 2 million farms nationwide.

Organic farmers face higher costs because their natural fertilizers and pest control efforts tend to be more expensive and they must hire more workers to replace the mechanization common in conventional farming.

But interest in organic food is blossoming into a $3.5 billion business, and USDA officials project a fourfold increase in the next decade. Chains such as the 80-store Fresh Fields have proved successful; even large food companies like ConAgra Inc. and General Mills are getting into the organics business.

Congress created the 14-member National Organics Standards Board to advise the Agriculture Department on the issue. The board’s recommendations are not the final standards but provide a glimpse into what the future may hold.

The standards would require federal certification of people involved in every step of the process, from farm field to handler to processor and marketer. Penalties could be stiff: The board has recommended up to $10,000 fines for anyone who knowingly mislabels a product as organic.

Some recommendations from the board:

Any product labeled as organic, such as a can of soup, should contain at least 95 percent organically grown ingredients. But a farmer could use synthetic copper compounds and some other substances to help control plant diseases.

All “organic livestock” would have to eat organically grown feed, not be kept in overcrowded conditions and “be allowed periodic access to the outdoors and direct sunlight.” Farmers could use antibiotics if an animal became sick but not to promote growth.

Genetic modification to plants and animals would be considered synthetic and nonorganic. This promises to be a major sticking point as the Agriculture Department is a promoter of biotechnology as a way to increase farm yields and reduce pesticides in conventional farming.

Fields used to produce organic crops must be free of prohibited substances for at least three years.

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