Goodness guaranteed: the federal government finally puts the U.S. seal of approval on organic produce.
Customers have been responding to organic farmers' increasing savvy. In 1992, the once-tiny organic market grew 15 percent, to $1.4 billion, and it is predicted to grow 25 percent per year in the next decade. Organic's share of new food products grew 38 percent in 1993, up to 6.6 percent of the total. According to a Public Voice survey in 1993, 83 percent of American families would prefer to buy organic produce. And a Colorado State University study earlier this year revealed that consumers are willing to pay a 23 percent premium when the food is certified as organic.
In recognition of this growing corner of the food market, the sweeping Federal Organic Foods Production Act, passed in 1990 with a strong push from Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), will involve the feds in accrediting growers, testing crops for chemical contamination, monitoring organic imports, checking up on livestock living conditions and reading bag labels.
The Act's passing got very little attention from hard-working organic farmers, produce managers or their customers--most whom E interviewed hadn't heard of it. But it will affect the organic community in a major way. Katherine DiMatteo, director of the Greenfield, Massachusetts-based Organic Foods Production Association (OFPANA), thinks the new law will be beneficial because "it creates consistency--people know that the produce they're buying has been certified as clean by a federal agency."
Passing a law, unfortunately, is not the same as implementing it. Congress unaccountably took almost a year to appoint the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to oversee the process of turning the broad law into specific rules. Board Chairman Michael Sligh, whose day job is with the South Carolina-based Rural Advancement Foundation, cites bureaucratic foul-ups and delays caused by the Bush-Clinton transition, plus a determined effort by the board to allow maximum public input.
It wasn't until early summer of this year that NOSB delivered most of its recommendations--on crop and livestock production, food handling and labeling, accreditation of organic certifiers and importation of foreign produce--to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The agency will open them up for another public comment period in early 1995.
With such an open process, there was bound to be dissention, and the board received widely varying opinion on questions like: Does organic produce have to be grown from organic seeds? Most farmers, claiming that such seeds are hard to get, said no, while companies like Seeds of Change (which markets only organic) lobbied hard for yes. "If we'd required organic seeds, a lot of farmers would have been put out of business," said board member Margaret Clark, a Washington State produce manager.
Board member Dean Eppley, a Wabash, Indiana farmer, said there was also heated discussion of the board's eventual decision to grant exemption from regulation to the small producer with sales less than $5,000 a year. "Some said the exemption should be set at $10,000 or $20,000, and others thought there shouldn't be an exemption at all," Eppley said.
The board's wide-ranging recommendations appear to represent a good compromise between the different interest groups. Farmers will be spending more time on paperwork: they'll have to come up with a wide-ranging "organic handling plan," covering everything from the materials they use to their pest management, livestock care and waste management practices. Producers will have to list percentages of organic ingredients on their packaging, and those listings will be monitored in annual spot checks. The dissembling phrase "organic when available" is banned.
Water used to wash conventional produce can't also be used on organic fruits and vegetables. X-rays can't be used for organic inspection, and ionizing radiation, used to kill insects or micro-organisms, is prohibited.
To prevent the almost inevitable pesticide "drift"--contamination carried by the wind from adjoining conventional fields--NOSB could have refused organic certification to so-called "split operations" (like, for instance, board member Eppley's), with both organic and conventional farming. Some members of the organic community, the board wrote, "believe split operations are difficult or impossible to certify because the risks of contamination or fraud are too high..." But the board decided split operations were permitted by the law, so it will require only very careful spraying and buffer zones between the crops.
NOSB could also have created a "zero tolerance" for pesticides, but, concluding that it would be "impractical, expensive and difficult to achieve," it chose to allow five percent of the levels set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for conventional produce. NOSB is still hashing out its stand on the inhumane but space-efficient "confinement" systems used by large farmers to raise poultry, pigs and cows.
Animal antibiotics will be allowed only in medical emergencies, a stand opposed by Mel Coleman of Coleman Natural Meats in Denver, Colorado, who consulted with the board on its livestock standards. "Our own company standards are stricter, frankly," he said. "We tell our customers, 'No antibiotics, ever,' and if an animal gets sick, we take it out of the organic program."
Organic producers are expected to accept the new standards. "Everyone now realizes that they are going to have to comply with the NOSB rules," says Eric Newman, a Montana food co-op manager and co-chairman of the Ohio-based Organic Crop Improvement Association.
Until the federal law takes effect, organic producers are subject to a hodge-podge of state laws with widely varying provisions. Only 11 states (including Texas, California, Florida, Washington, Colorado, Idaho, New Hampshire, Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky and Rhode Island) do much more than benignly ignore both organic production and sales. California, however, has both stringent standards and regular inspections of its health food stores.
The state laws don't address interstate shipping, where, according to DiMatteo, contamination can occur. Freight trains are sometimes sprayed with pesticides before taking on large produce loads that include organics. Fruit packed in ice can also be stored underneath conventional shipments that have been heavily sprayed. All these problems are addressed in the new federal law, DiMatteo said, adding that she doesn't think contamination is frequent in any case.
"The important thing to remember," says DiMatteo, "is that organic is a production system, not a product safety claim. There are going to be traces of pesticides present. We are an environmentally damaged planet."
While the Act devotes much attention to farmers and processors, it completely leaves out the next link in the chain--the health food stores. The stores' lobbyists were able to get them exempted from most, but not all, of the federal bill's provisions. But now some retailers are wondering if some kind of voluntary regulation would increase consumer confidence--particularly at operations like the Pratts stores in Oklahoma, which sell both conventional and organic produce. How do they keep the first from chemically dousing the second? J.B. Pratt, Jr., who has nine stores selling as much as 20 percent organic, says, "It's not all that hard to keep them apart. We find that if we put the organic off in a corner, it gets lost and doesn't sell."
OFPANA has drafted non-obligatory standards for in-store displays and food handling, which are still in internal draft form. David Schardt, a nutritionist with the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), thinks such internal industry standards are a good idea. "If people think a product is healthy and they pay more for it, as they do with anything labelled organic, they should be able to trust it," he said.
Pratt agrees that trust is important if the price barrier is to be hurdled. "For our first-time customers, price is an obstacle," he said, "but once they understand what the word 'organic' really means--the water quality issues, the soil fertility--they're much more willing to pay extra. Parents, especially, don't have a problem paying more for something that's going to have effects into the next generation."
Contact: Organic Foods Production Association of North America, P.O. Box 1078, Greenfield, MA 01301/(413)774-7511; Organic Crop Improvement Association, 3185 Township Road 179, Bellefontaine, OH 43311/(513)592-4983.
JIM MOTAVALLI is managing editor of E Magazine.