Organic Standards, Round Two
By Michele Simon
Originally published on WholeFoods.com, June 2000.

The federal government is taking another shot at setting national organic standards. More than two years after an initial attempt in December 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released its revised proposal for another round of public comment. While this version is much improved, many are voicing lingering concerns over maintaining the integrity of the word "organic" in a fast-growing industry.

According the figures recently released by the USDA, the number of U.S. farm acres dedicated to producing organic vegetables, fruit, herbs and livestock surged nearly 50 percent from 1995 to 1997. The U.S. organic industry sold more than $6 billion of products in 1999 and organic sales are estimated to increase by another 20 percent this year. Thus, much is at stake for what can and cannot carry the organic label, both for industry and the consumer.

What's Different This Time Around
After public outcry from more than 275,000 concerned farmers and consumers in response to the government's first proposed organic standards rule, USDA officials had no choice but to listen. Most of the alarm centered around the "big three:" allowing organic labeling on foods grown using biotechnology, irradiation and sewage sludge. USDA got the message loud and clear and under the new proposal, such foods will not carry an organic label. Farmers and consumers declared a great victory in getting USDA to back down on these hot-button issues.

Another area of concern in round one was farm animal confinement and organic feed standards. Now, for fresh meats to be labeled organic, no factory farm-style intensive confinement of farm animals will be allowed and all feed must be 100 percent organic, without use of antibiotics, growth hormones, or rendered animal protein.

Organic Rule Explained at National Trade Show
Katherine DiMatteo, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association, explained the new proposal to industry members at the recent Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, California. Also on hand were USDA Deputy Secretary Richard Rominger and Whole Foods' Vice President for Governmental and Public Affairs, Margaret Wittenberg, who is also a member of the National Organic Standards Board.

DiMatteo said she is particularly pleased with the four labeling choices that USDA has proposed for processed foods because they represent good choices for consumers. The four categories, which must be certified by a private or state regulating authority, are:

1) "100 percent organic" means that that all ingredients must be organic.
2) To use the word "organic," a product must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
3) A product that is between 50 and 95 percent organic may only say that it was "made from" organic ingredients.
4) Anything else may not make claims regarding organic content on the main part of the packaging, but may do so on the side label.

Rominger called the new labeling system simple and easy to understand. "We want to make sure that consumers know what they are buying, that they have adequate choices, and that farmers know what is expected of them," he said.

Consumer Reaction Mixed
While the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) acknowledges "major improvements" in the current USDA proposal, they also cite "a number of problems and shortcomings," including:

  • manure from factory farms being allowed as a fertilizer on organic farms
  • lack of exact spacing requirements for humane housing and outdoor access farm animals
  • lack of residue limits for "genetic drift" caused by contamination from farms growing genetically engineered crops
  • added costs of USDA oversight falling heavily on small certifiers and farmers

OCA is urging its members to submit comments on these issues, and to request that USDA not weaken or dilute any of the currently proposed organic rules. OCA is also requesting that private and state organic certifiers be allowed to say that they certify products to stricter standards than USDA by labeling products as "meets or exceeds" USDA organic standards. The current proposal does allow states to exceed the proposed national standards.

Finally, Whole Foods' Margaret Wittenberg expressed confidence in the process for hammering out the current proposal. "We've been working hand in hand with the USDA in this process. From the first initial proposed rule, we were determined that this next one would be a joint process where we all worked together, and I think we really achieved that and I'm very excited about it," she said.