USDA Proposal Would Weaken Organic Standards

Lori Schiraga is a program coordinator with the Environmental Defense Center, which has offices in Ventura and Santa Barbara. For further information on the proposal, contact her at the center at (805) 963-1622 ext. 107

Over the past decade the organic industry has experienced incredible growth, expanding by more than 20% a year for a current annual $4 billion in sales.

Consumers purchase organic produce, meats and even clothing because they trust that their production uses an environmentally friendly process. Organic farming is based on a system of producing food and fiber in harmony with nature instead of subduing and manipulating nature with chemical pesticides and fertilizers that are potentially toxic.

Private, independent organizations provide consumers with the assurance that the products they buy are, indeed, "certified organic." But as organic foods have grown in popularity and the use of the "organic" label has become more frequent, so has its misuse, leading to a call for national organic standards.

The Organic Foods Production Act, part of the 1990 Farm Bill, established the framework for implementing uniform national standards for organic production and labeling. In 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) formed the National Organic Standards Board to make recommendations for the rule-making process.

In December, proposed federal standards for organic food production were released by the USDA. Unfortunately, although the Organic Standards Board's recommendations represent a strong consensus between the organic industry and consumer and environmental concerns, the proposed rule ignores most of the recommendations and in some cases violates the Organic Foods Production Act.

The USDA-proposed rule would greatly weaken existing organic standards by permitting synthetic substances and production practices and processes fundamentally incompatible with organic agriculture.

According to a highly regarded organic certifying organization, California Certified Organic Farmers: "The proposed rules as they stand are so unworkable that they should not be implemented. They would decimate general organic standards, and they are contrary to organic principles, the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board and CCOF's own standards."

There are several areas of extreme concern.

Livestock production: The proposal would allow:

* Perpetual and intensive confinement of organically raised livestock. Such confinement does not allow adequate space for movement and access to the outdoors.

* Use of antibiotics in the first 21 days of life for mammals and the first seven days for poultry. This contradicts Organic Standards Board recommendations and is far more lax than current certification programs.

* Feeding dairy animals organically produced feed for only three months before producing milk and dairy products labeled and sold as organic. The Organic Foods Production Act mandates 12 months of organically produced feed before selling milk as organic.

* Feeding 20% non-organically produced feed to livestock raised for organically produced meat, eggs and dairy products. The Organic Foods Production Act mandates 100% organically produced feed for livestock products labeled organic.

Ionizing radiation: The USDA proposal would allow the use of ionizing radiation to kill food-borne pathogens, a practice prohibited by most existing organic certification programs and opposed by the Organic Standards Board.

Sewage sludge (bio-solids): The proposal would allow use of bio-solids as fertilizer. The Organic Standards Board recommended that bio-solids be classified as synthetic and inappropriate for organic crops.

Genetically engineered organisms: The proposal would add certain genetically engineered organisms to the list of materials allowed in organic production. This conflicts with organic practices and Organic Standards Board recommendations.

Active and inert synthetic substances: The proposal includes new terms and criteria that could allow a range of active synthetic substances to be used in organic farming, livestock production and processed foods labeled and sold as organic. These could include antibiotics, pesticides, parasiticides, fertilizers and food additives that can include human carcinogens and other materials not now allowed in organic production.

If the proposed rule goes into effect, we would lose "organic" as we know it.

In addition, labeling to identify products produced under conditions more stringent than the proposed organic standard would be prohibited. Among the prohibited labels: "produced without synthetic pesticides," "raised without synthetic chemicals," "pesticide-free farm," "no drugs or growth hormones used," "raised without antibiotics," "raised without hormones," "no growth stimulants administered," "ecologically produced," "sustainably harvested" and "humanely raised."

Simply stated, this proposal would label as "organic" products produced by means the public does not believe to be organic.

We have until April 30 to let the USDA and congressional representatives know our concerns and to demand remedy.

A coalition including the organic industry and environmental, consumer, farming and animal welfare advocates is urging the USDA to withdraw its proposed organic regulations and adopt the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board.

You are urged to do the same.

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