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Label loophole: when organic isn't.

For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the agribusiness industry have all but ignored the organic community. The industry quietly carved out a sizable market niche, growing in sales from $178 million in 1980 to more than $4.2 billion today. After establishing their own private certification systems, organic farmers sought to further protect the term "organic" and petitioned Congress for a national standard. The result was the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which called for the development of a national standard for certified organic produce. Now the USDA has proposed such a standard, but it is not doing What the organic community intended.

At the December 15, 1997, press conference announcing the new rule, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said, "The rules are going to clear up the confusion that sometimes exists ... about what is and what is not organic."

Yet the 600-page proposal seriously muddies that question. "They have no interest in providing our organic community with a historically significant and correct rule," says Edward Brown, produce manager at Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis. "Instead, they undermine the rule and erase the lines that divide conventional and organic agriculture. We didn't realize the USDA language would benefit corporate agriculture and give them a beachhead into the organic movement."

The new rule "would be a boon for the conventional agribusiness food system which has, for years, sought to eliminate any differentiation in the marketplace that threatens their market share," Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and National Organic Standards Board member,' writes in Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly. "One could hardly imagine a single piece of regulation that could bring more joy and comfort to the agribusiness food industry."

Mike Hankin, senior marketing specialist of the USDA's National Organic Program, sees things differently. "It's a matter of trust," he says. "If you're suspicious of us, no matter what we write or say, you'll look at it with a critical eye. You've got to trust that we're writing the highest possible standard."

The new standard could allow food that is genetically engineered, zapped with ionizing radiation, or fertilized with municipal sewer sludge to carry the label "organic." These are the three most obvious problems with the new standard, according to Organic Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C. Already, 30,000 citizens have objected to the new standard, mostly citing these problems, the group says. It expects the number of citizen complaints to rise to 100,000 by the time the period for public comment ends on April 30.

But Organic Watch has identified more than sixty provisions that "contradict the Organic Foods Production Act, alter existing organic farming, processing, and handling practices, and threaten the continued viability of private organic certifiers."

The USDA is also proposing a change in the definition of "organic" from a focus on the agricultural process to an emphasis on the end product. That shift in definition could alter the whole method of organic farming, say critics. "Organic has always been a process-based approach," says Michael Sligh, director of sustainable agriculture for the Rural Advancement Foundation and the first chair of the USDA:s National Organic Standards Board. "It matters what happens at every stage, from the seed on. That's what consumers are paying for."

But the biotech industry doesn't want the "organic" label to mean a process because it could damage American trade in genetically engineered products. "The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Foreign Agricultural Service are concerned that our trading partners will point to a USDA organic standard that excludes GMOs [genetically modified organisms] as evidence of the Department's concern about the safety of bioengineered commodities," writes Lon Hatamiya, administrator of the -USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service in an internal memo dated May 1, 1997, which was obtained by Mother Jones magazine.

In other words, putting a "USDA-certified organic" label on genetically engineered produce would erase fears about the technology.

Other questionable provisions in the proposed rule include:

* Allowing synthetics. The National Organic Standards Board recommends prohibiting the use of certain synthetic materials. But the new USDA rule would overturn the board's prohibition against the use of "killed B.t.," a toxin derived from genetically engineered bacteria. Likewise, although the National Organic Standards Board ruled genetically engineered chymosin (a cheese hardening agent) an unacceptable synthetic, the USDA proposal would permit it to be labeled organic.

Additional substances rejected by the National Organic Standards Board but permissible according to the USDA rule are strychnine, potassium nitrate, piperonyl butoxide, copper-chromium arsenate, and the crop antibiotic avermectin.

* Prohibiting a higher organic standard. The proposed rule forbids private bodies from using labels based on standards higher than the national requirement.

* Eroding the National Organic Standards Board's statutory authority. The 1990 Organic Foods Production Act states that only the National Organic Standards' Board can make additions to the National List of allowed and prohibited substances. It's a provision the USDA is planning to ignore with its new proposal.

* Adding loophole language. The USDA proposals water down National Organic Standards Board recommendations by adding an "if necessary" qualifier in several instances. For instance, the Board's previous standard stipulated that certified organic livestock have access to outdoors and space for movement. Now that standard would have an "if necessary" clause. And, while the National Organic Standards Board recommended that organically produced livestock be fed only organically produced feeds and feed supplements, the USDA rewrote the provision to allow up to 20 percent of nonorganic livestock feed. "If necessary," the proposed rule adds, farmers can use a higher percentage.

"The definition of 'if necessary,' doesn't exist. 'If necessary' means you don't have to," says Andrew Kimbrell, an Organic Watch attorney and director of the International Center for Technology Assessment.

Peter DeFazio, the Democratic Representative from Oregon who helped author the Organic Foods Production Act, says the USDA's plan represents a miscarriage of democracy. "It is not much of a partnership if the Secretary can undo all of the input of citizens by adding items to the National List that the public has already rejected," he testified at a February 26 USDA hearing. "This interpretation says to the public, 'Comment all you want, in the end the national organic label will be whatever the Secretary wants it to be."'

Still, the USDA says the proposed changes will have little effect on our food. "We don't think what's contained in the proposed rule is different from what's in existence in organic agriculture today," Hankin says.

"That's one of the myths USDA would like you to believe," says Brown. "Currently, there's 98 percent harmonization of standards in the certified organic industry."

Some critics wonder whether the groundswell of public outrage at the "big three" problems (genetic engineering, irradiated food, and municipal sewer sludge fertilizer) may be exactly what some agribusinesses want. The USDA is using these three issues to distract consumers from the many other problems in the rule, says Brown. "They were intentionally put in there to draw all the flack," he says. "Consumers are focusing on the big three, so they'll miss things like the National List."

Now many organic growers are advocating that the USDA completely withdraw the proposed rule. Organic Watch attorney Kimbrell encourages consumers to continue the letter-writing campaign to the USDA, but also to put pressure on their legislators in Congress. "Tell them this is a hospice case," he says. "It cannot be fixed."
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Title Annotation:organic foods labeling
Author:Schmelzer, Paul
Publication:The Progressive
Date:May 1, 1998
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