USDA moves to make organic food labels meaningless
Steve Schell
April 1998

At one point considered just a fad among home gardeners and earth-friendly progressives, organic farming has turned into big business. As more and more people have begun to realize that small, family-owned farms were giving way to huge corporate farms using all manner of pesticides and chemicals in the growing and processing stages, they have begun to search for healthy alternatives. Sales of organic foods have been growing at a rate of about 20 percent each year, according to the Organic Farmers Marketing Association. Those of us who buy organic foods have taken "organic" to mean grown free of pesticides, chemicals, bioengineering methods, or irradiation, and in the case of meat, raised without the use of drugs, fed organic feed, and treated in a humane fashion. All that could change under new rules proposed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

If the USDA has its way, it will be nearly impossible to tell what foods are truly organic. In a move many see as "selling out" to conventional big-business corporate farms, the USDA's new rules for certifying organic foods spell out what methods are acceptable, what substances are allowed, and what labeling is allowed and prohibited (Recall the uproar over Bovine Growth Hormone, the substance injected into cows to increase milk production. Federal rules were issued that prohibited dairies from labeling milk as "BGH-free").

The USDA has an advisory panel called the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB recommended against most of these proposed changes but the USDA went ahead with publishing the proposal anyway. As always with rule proposals or changes, the USDA solicited public comment regarding the changes, and, for the first time, allowed comments through its website ( The response so far has been overwhelming.

Overwhelming in volume as well as content. The responses, totaling over 18,000 on the web so far, have been in opposition to the new rules. Robert Anderson, chair of the NOSB, said, "we were told this morning the response is unanimously opposed to the rules--these rules need to be rewritten." Anderson made his comments during a break at a public hearing at Rutgers University on Tuesday, April 7. Hundreds of consumer and farmer protesters showed up at that hearing to loudly voice their displeasure with the USDA's actions. Among the proposals set forth by the agribusiness-friendly USDA are:

1. A redefinition of "organic" to include the use of sludge, bioengineered organisms, and irradiation.
2. A change in the qualifying requirements and increase in the cost of registering as an organic farmer.
3. A change in the allowable composition of livestock feed from 100% organic ingredients to allow 20% non-organic substances. Additionally, confinement and drug use would be allowed in the raising of farm animals.
4. A prohibition on alternative labeling, such as "produced without synthetic pesticides or chemicals" So if you choose to produce your products under stricter conditions than the USDA proposes, you will not be able to label it as such.

A close look at the proposed rule reveals many vague directives, such as the following, found under section 205.15: "The following living conditions shall be adequately provided, as appropriate to the species, to promote livestock health: (1) Protection from the elements; (2) Space for movement(5) Access to food and clean water" Adequate? We already know what the big corporate farms consider as adequate in terms of living space. Space for movement? How much? For how long? Read a bit further and you come to this gem: "If necessary, livestock may be maintained under conditions that restrict the available space for movement or their access to the outside." Who determines if it is necessary? Big business who wants to house as many animals as possible in as little space as possible in order to maximize profit. It almost appears as though the big chicken factories with 5 chickens in one cage, with their beaks cut off to keep them from pecking one another will qualify as an organic operation, at least as far as this portion of the rules is concerned.

The organic market is not small potatoes anymore. This is why big business wants in. If organic sales are climbing, this spells potential trouble for products produced by conventional means. And, following standard practice in Washington, big business is courting the agency who can help them the most, the USDA. The USDA rolled over, and came up with (or allowed chemical companies to write) a set of rules that are vague, overly permissive, and fundamentally flawed. This is the government playing with food safety, and ultimately, your health.

It appears as though there is a groundswell of opposition to these ridiculous rules. You can help keep the momentum going in favor of the consumer by letting the USDA know how you feel about it. Comments are being accepted until April 30 on this issue so there's a little time for you to research it if you want. The entire proposal is on the web at the above-mentioned site and there are a host of related sites that you can find on a good search engine. To contact the USDA: write Eileen Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4007-So., Ag Stop 0275, PO Box 96456, Washington, DC 20090. Fax your concerns to 202-690-4632. Visit Organic Farmers Marketing Association, or, the Campaign to Keep "Organic" Organic for more information. The second site has a form you can fill out to add your name to the huge list of consumers who disagree with this attempt by the government to water down the standards for organic food production.

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