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What’s ‘Organic’?

Tue., Dec. 16, 1997

The Clinton administration on Monday proposed the nation’s first federal regulations that would define what it means for food to be “organic,” bringing to fruition seven years of negotiations among farmers, food processors and environmentalists and igniting debate over key issues that remain unresolved.

The proposed rule would largely replace the state-by-state patchwork of definitions that have fed increasing consumer confusion as the U.S. market for organic food has blossomed from an insignificant alternative niche a decade ago into a $3.5 billion industry that today is growing 20 percent a year.

“Organic is a very popular label, but it tends not to mean very much,” said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who presented the proposed rule at a news conference. “If you ask people to sit down and actually define what organic means, you get all kinds of answers.”

The proposal, which is open for public comment for the next 90 days, aims to settle the issue. As some states and foreign countries have done already, it demands the use of environmentally sound farming methods and limits the use of synthetic chemicals during the production of fresh foods that are to be marketed as organic. Moreover, for the first time in this country, it proposes definitions of “organic” for processed foods and meat.

Food activists praised the proposed rule as promising. The organic farming industry had asked for federal standards as a way to maintain its identity and integrity.

But several advocates warned that last-minute negotiations among the USDA, other government agencies and private industry had left the rule differing in important ways from the one hammered out by a congressionally mandated panel of experts during the past several years.

Most worrisome to organic advocates, the proposal takes no position on whether foods that are genetically engineered, irradiated, or fertilized with “sewage sludge,” including processed human waste, should be eligible for the Agriculture Department’s newly designed “organic” label. The federal panel of experts had recommended the rule preclude such foods from being labeled organic, lest consumers lose faith that the organic label represents a real choice over commercial varieties.

Activists said they were also upset by wording in the proposed rule that would give the secretary of agriculture the power to add synthetic or genetically engineered chemicals to the list of products allowed to be used on organic foods, instead of leaving such decisions up to an independent board as initially proposed. Already, they said, the secretary has proposed including a genetically engineered pesticide that had been rejected by that panel.

Some criticized the department’s proposal that milk could be sold as “organic” even if it came from a cow that had been on antibiotics or other drugs relatively recently. And animal care activists lambasted a last-minute change of wording that would allow “organically raised” animals to be confined indefinitely in crowded “factory farm” conditions without access to the outdoors. The congressional expert panel, echoing European standards, had recommended such conditions be tolerated only temporarily due to illness or inclement weather.

“We are disappointed that the USDA has taken out some of the basic things that have always been part of what it means to be organic,” said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who sponsored the 1990 legislation that created the expert panel and led to Monday’s proposed rule, said the rule’s final wording, to be completed next year, will determine the degree of consumer confidence in the word “organic.” That could have a big impact not only on the market for organic foods, he said, but also on the survival of many small and medium-sized farms in this country.

Organic farms, most of which are smaller than 100 acres, are among the last of the financially solvent small farms in this country - a fact made possible by the higher prices organic farmers can charge. Lately, however, several large growers and food processors - including major baby food companies - have been moving into the lucrative market. Weak standards could kill the organic market, activists warned, or make it ripe for a takeover by agribusiness.

Despite such fears, even critics found a lot to like in the proposed rule. It severely limits the use of synthetic chemicals on organic raw foods. And in keeping with the idea that “organic” refers to the food-raising process and not just the product, the rule insists upon ecologically sound practices on the farm to maintain water and soil quality.

Processed foods would have to contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients to be designated organic. (An intermediate category of processed foods would be created for foods with 50 percent to 94 percent organic ingredients.) Organic meat would have to come from animals raised under conditions that “promote the health of the animal.” Routine use of antibiotics and other drugs in healthy animals would be precluded.

The proposed rule would create a federal bureaucracy for accrediting state-run or privately operated certifying agencies, which would be responsible for ensuring organic farms meet or exceed federal guidelines. Under the proposal, violators could be fined up to $10,000. Graphic: More people buying organic


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