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Court orders stricter rules for organic food industry

Frederic J. Frommer Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Some farmers are worried that a federal court ruling requiring that the Agriculture Department must come up with stricter standards for organic food will slow the fast-growing industry.

Consumers advocates say the decision it will help ensure that people get higher-quality food when they buy products labeled organic.

The U.S. District Court in Maine finalized a court ruling this month that bans synthetic ingredients in organic products . Also, the ruling requires dairy farmers to feed their cows 100 percent organic feed during the transition to organic.

In a lawsuit against the department, a Maine grower of organic blueberries, Arthur Harvey, contended the current regulations violated the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

The organic dairy industry says the new regulations would make it more expensive for dairy farmers to convert to organic because organic feed can cost two or three times more than conventional feed. Advocates are considering going back to Congress for a legislative remedy.

The department declined comment about the court case or what it would do about the standards.

“We think this will discourage dairy farmers from becoming organic,” said George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley, a national farmer-owned organic cooperative based in La Farge, Wis. “I think it will slow down supply and buyers will have to contribute more to the cost.”

Demand for organic milk has risen steadily as consumers seek products free of pesticides and antibiotics.

The court gave the department one year to develop new regulations; the agency would then have an additional year to phase them in.

Current regulations allow dairy farmers who want to go organic to feed their cows 20 percent conventional feed and 80 percent organic feed in the first nine months of the transitional year. That goes to 100 percent for the last three months.

Milk can be labeled organic only after the transitional year.

Members of the U.S. House Organic Caucus recently wrote Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to warn that the decision “could decimate every sector of the organic industry.” The lawmakers did not call for a change in law, but said they wanted to work with Johanns to resolve the conflict.

Six agriculture, retail and food safety groups, including the Center for Food Safety, have asked the department to develop strict standards in the wake of the court ruling.

The department declined comment.

Jerome Walch, who has a 50-cow dairy near Rochester, Minn., about 90 miles south of Minneapolis, is in the process of converting to organic. He said he still hopes to go through, but now worries about the economics.

Urvashi Rangan, an environmental health scientist at Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., said farmers and consumers will benefit from the ruling in the long run.

“It’s a big victory for consumers, as far as the integrity of the organic label and what it means,” Rangan said.

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