Whose Organic Standards?
USDA'S New Proposed Regulations Are Unacceptable
By RONNIE CUMMINS
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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: email@example.com 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
-- 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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