U.S. Finalizes National Organic Food Standards

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, December 20, 2000 (ENS) - More than 10 years after being mandated by federal law, the U.S. government today unveiled its final national standards for the production, handling and processing of organically grown agricultural products.


Organic produce, a mainstay at many farmers' markets, will now have to meet stricter standards. (Photo courtesy USDA)

Speaking to a throng of reporters and curious midmorning shoppers at a Whole Foods health food store in northwest Washington, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the nation's long awaited organic food standards will be the "strongest and most comprehensive in the world."

"These new standards are a win for both farmers and consumers," Glickman said. "I have said all along that we would create national organic standards that farmers, consumers and the organic industry will embrace, and I think we have done just that."


Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman testifying before Congress earlier this year. Glickman appeared at a Washington health food store today to announce the USDA's new organic food standards. (Photo courtesy USDA)

National standards for organically produced foods have been in the works since 1990, when the Organic Foods Production Act was incorporated into that year's federal farm bill. The measure, which was drafted by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, required the Agriculture Department (USDA) to develop consistent and uniform national standards governing the production and labeling of organically grown agricultural products.

Leahy, a Democrat, joined Glickman in the produce section of the Whole Foods Market to praise the unveiling of the long awaited organic foods standards.

"Today I feel like a proud father," Leahy said. "This has been a challenging process, but I am pleased and optimistic about the opportunities that this final rule will bring to organic agriculture in America."


Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy in 1990 drafted the bill that led to the establishment of the USDA's new organic food standards. (Photo courtesy USDA)

But not everyone at Wednesday's ceremony was so proud and optimistic about the nation's new standards for organic foods. Greenpeace activist Craig Culp briefly interrupted the ceremony, saying that the USDA's new standards do nothing to prevent the "widespread genetic contamination" of organic foods and the entire organic farming industry.

"How is the consumer and the farmer going to be assured that there isn't genetic contamination in the crops?" Culp asked.

Culp's remark underscored a central theme of the national organic foods standards, which drew a staggering 275,000 negative public comments when they were released in draft form three years ago. Almost all of the comments demanded that the USDA not classify foods as "organic" if they were produced with genetically engineered crops, or were grown in sewage sludge, or were subjected to ionizing radiation.


Under the USDA's new regulations, organic produce must be grown without the application of pesticides or sewage ludge. (Photo courtesy USDA)

Unable to ignore the onslaught of criticism, the USDA incorporated those provisions into its national organic rule in March.

"The people spoke, and we listened," Glickman said. "The organic standards represent government rule making at its very best. [The standards] are the product of a full throated public debate."

In essence, the new organic standard offers a national definition for the term "organic," Glickman said. The standard will detail the methods, practices and substances that can be used in producing and handling organic crops and livestock, as well as processed food products, he said.

The final standard also outlines labeling requirements for organic products, certification and recordkeeping requirements, and accreditation requirements for producers of organic foods, Glickman said.

Aside from the prohibitions against genetic engineering, sewage sludge and irradiation, the final organic standards include a number of other important changes from the draft version released in March, Glickman said. These changes:

In addition, the new standards include a "commercial availability provision" which requires that "Organic" products - which are defined as having at least 95 percent organic ingredients - have their remaining ingredients also sourced from organically certified sources.

Still, USDA organic labels are designed to be "marketing tools," not government statements or certifications about food safety or nutritional quality, Glickman emphasized.

"USDA is not in the business of choosing sides, or stating preferences for one kind of food, one set of ingredients, or one means of production over any other, Glickman said. "As long as rigorous government safety standards are being met, we stand ready to do what we can to help support any farmer and help market any kind of food."

Glickman said that he purchases and consumes both organic and "conventional" foods. Still, the Agriculture Secretary conceded that organic farming practices "probably [do] provide some environmental benefits." And in terms of nutritional value, organic foods probably do offer an "edge" for some people, Glickman added.


Craig Murphy windrows organically grown wheat on his farm near Morris, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy USDA)

Leahy noted that the USDA's new standard will provide economic benefits for farmers and others involved in organic agriculture. Leahy said that in his home state of Vermont, the number of certified organic farms has quadrupled since 1990.

"In many cases [organic farming] also provides sustainability to the profession of farming," Leahy said. "In Vermont, the growth of the organic industry means that more farmers will be able to make a decent living doing what they love."

Two of Leahy's constituents, Travis and Amy Forgues, took part in Wednesday's unveiling of the USDA's new organic standards. The Forgues, who have been organic producers since 1997, milk approximately 100 cows on 220 acres of pastureland near Alburg, Vermont.

"Organic farming makes so much sense for Vermont and the environment," said Travis.

Amy said that she and her husband may have lost their family farm had it not been for Leahy and the USDA's National Organic Program. The program, she said, provides "hope of keeping rural farming alive."

"We are the new face of farming in America," Amy said.

Glickman, a political appointee of the outgoing Clinton administration, will leave his post as Agriculture Secretary on January 20th. President-elect George W. Bush today announced his choice for Glickman's replacement - Ann Veneman, a 51 year old attorney who served in the Agriculture Department during the administration of Bush's father.

In her nomination ceremony in Texas, Veneman said to Bush, "Like you, I want to find common ground and promote common sense."

Glickman, asked about Veneman, said, "I think she will do a fine job. I think the President-elect has made a very fine choice."

Glickman did not discuss Veneman's positions on organic farming or the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

The USDA's national organic standards rule and additional background information is available online at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop.