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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Organic Food Standards

Air Date: Week of

Amy Bernstein reports on the federal government’s new proposed standards for organic foods. The standards come after a decade of planning and a record level of public involvement. The feds say they’re the strongest organic standards in the world, and supporters of organic foods seem to agree. This is the first of a two-part series on the emerging organic industry.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. After years of debate, the federal government has proposed strict new standards for what foods can be sold with the label "organic." The market for organic foods is six billion dollars, and growing by 20 percent a year. But until now there has been no consistent definition of exactly what the term "organically grown" means. When they go into effect, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new standards will cover everything from seeds to processing. From Baltimore, Amy Bernstein has our report, the first of a two-part series on the emerging organic foods business.

(Beeps at a checkout counter; bags being filled)

BERNSTEIN: At the Fresh Fields supermarket in Baltimore, half of everything sold in the gleaming upscale store is organically grown or produced, from macaroni and cheese to salad dressing to tomatoes. But many shoppers here may not realize that foods labeled organic don't all meet the same standards. Under current law, states set their own criteria for organic certification. In Maryland, that means farmers can grow genetically-modified crops and still claim they're organic. But in neighboring Pennsylvania, that practice is prohibited. The disparity is a problem for Maryland farmers like Drew Norman, who runs a 200-acre organic farm in Baltimore County. Norman grows organic vegetables and hay without using any man-made pesticides or fertilizers.

(Roosters crow; hens cluck)

NORMAN: I can't sell product into Pennsylvania as a Maryland-certified grower.

BERNSTEIN: Under the USDA's proposed national organic standards, Drew Norman's problem would vanish because every farmer would have to meet the same criteria to earn the organic seal of approval.

NORMAN: The advantages are obvious. Then I can sell, or any grower can sell his product anywhere, and it would be accepted by anybody else. And so that opens up your markets a lot more.

BERNSTEIN: By all accounts the USDA has set the bar high for organic certification. The use of genetically-altered crops, irradiation, or fertilizer treated with sewage sludge are all prohibited. In addition, cattle and other livestock must eat only organically-grown feed. They must be allowed to roam freely on pasture land, and they cannot be treated with antibiotics. Catherine Dimatteo of the Organic Trade Association, which represents organic growers and others, says the USDA has hit the mark with these regulations.

DIMATTEO: This is a good regulation. It really does capture the principles and practices that the organic industry has been developing over the last 20 years.

BERNSTEIN: Many businesses disdain government intervention, but the organic industry had been calling for federal standards for more than a decade. And with the passage of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, many believed those standards would soon follow. But the agency knew little about organic agriculture at the time. As a result, some USDA officials spent the 90s polling farmers, certifiers, and consumer groups to find out just what the organic label should mean. The USDA's Kathleen Merrigan admits the agency faced a steep learning curve.

MERRIGAN: Certainly there was some time lost at USDA when people struggled to figure out what this monster was all about. There was not a significant in-house expertise on organic agriculture at USDA. So a lot of it was a learning process.

BERNSTEIN: Indeed, in 1997 the USDA's first attempt at setting organic standards met with vigorous opposition. In marked contrast to the current ruling, the agency would have allowed growers to use genetic engineering, irradiation, and sludge, all of which the USDA deems safe, but most organic farmers and consumers oppose. The agency logged more than a quarter million comments protesting that regulation, the most ever received by a government agency. The current proposed standard represents an about-face for the USDA. Merrigan says she's confident it will win widespread support, but not everyone is cheered by the prospect of a USDA organic seal of approval. Gene Grabowski is with the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing food giants like Pillsbury. He says the organic label could mislead consumers.

GRABOWSKI: What we have to be careful of is making the organic seal some kind of safety seal. It is not. As a matter of fact, organic foods are no safer, and in some cases you have to take more care in handling organic foods than you do with processed foods.

BERNSTEIN: Organic farmers may also experience a downside under the new law. As it's now written, the USDA will authorize state and private agencies around the country to carry out the certification process. Eventually, those agencies will have to pay fees to the USDA that could amount to thousands of dollars. At least a portion of that expense could then be passed on to local farmers. And Catherine Dimatteo of the Organic Trade Association says because the new USDA standard is so strict, some farmers and food processors might have difficulty finding enough organic seed and other approved ingredients to meet certification.

DIMATTEO: There will have to be a lot of work done on the part of the industry to source adequate supplies to meet the growing demand for organic products. And this may mean initially that there may be no expansion in the organic industry until more farmers and more processing suppliers develop the types of products that meet this organic regulation.

BERNSTEIN: Still, despite such concerns, the long-awaited national organic standard is looking like a sure thing. In addition to spelling out production methods, the standard also includes a number of firsts for the industry, such as five million dollars for research into organic farming methods and a pilot study to improve crop insurance. The 90-day public comment period on the proposed regulation ends June 12th. A final ruling is expected before the end of the year. Farmers will then have an additional 18 months to prepare for certification. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Bernstein in Baltimore.



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