USDA Issues New Rules On Foods Carrying 'Organic' Label
By Martha Mendoza
Associated Press
PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. (AP) - In a reversal, the government will initiate new rules saying that food cannot claim to be "organic" if it has been irradiated, genetically engineered or treated with antibiotics, a top agriculture official told farmers Thursday.
The labeling plan was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in response to an outcry last year against an earlier set of rules organic farmers considered too permissive.
"I'm telling you we are looking at every possible way to protect the integrity of your industry," said Keith Jones of the department's National Organic Program.
The new rules governing fruit, vegetables and livestock will probably be published next summer in the Federal Register and could take effect in the fall, Jones said.
The department is trying to develop the first national standards on organic food labeling to replace a hodgepodge of state rules and industry guidelines.
U.S. sales of organic foods have grown 20 percent annually for the last seven years. In 1996, they exceeded $3.5 billion. There are now more than 10,000 U.S. farms trying to raise organic crops and livestock, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
Farmers have their own informal guidelines for what they call organic. For instance, fruits and vegetables shouldn't have pesticides, herbicides or preservatives, and livestock should be raised in an open-air environment, without antibiotics or hormones.
Last year, the USDA proposed allowing food to be labeled "organic" even if it was irradiated to kill germs, genetically engineered, or subjected to sewage sludge or chemical spraying.
Organic farmers, marketers and consumers sent more than 280,000 protest letters, prompting Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to withdraw the proposal. Jones shared details of the department's latest proposal at the Ecological Farming Conference, the nation's largest gathering of organic farmers.
Holding a hand-drawn paper target to his chest, he conceded that the federal agency has failed the organic farmers in the past.
"It seems that in the current environment the USDA can't do anything right," he said. "But I can tell you today we have a commitment to get it right."
He got a generally sympathetic reception.
"I'm very encouraged," said Bob Anderson, who runs Walnut Acres in Penn Creek, Pa., and is on the National Organic Standards Board, a coalition of organic farmers. "There's nothing like 280,000 comments to get the government's attention."
However, some farmers were skeptical and said they want to see the rules in print.
"We farmers in West Texas joke about never having seen rain but we still believe in it. That's kind of where we are in this process," said Michael Sligh of the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, based in Chapel Hill, N.C.