USDA Passes Organics Standards

It’s official: food grown in sewage sludge can no longer be classified as “Organic.” After a decade of false starts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally passed national organic food labeling standards on Wednesday.

Current rules on organic labeling vary widely from state to state, and the USDA’s first efforts at setting uniform standards about 10 years ago met with much disagreement from growers and consumer groups alike. Initially, the government agricultural group planned to allow genetically engineered and irradiated food products, as well as foods that had been grown with sewage sludge as fertilizer, to pass for organic.

The new standards ban biotech and irradiated products and govern such things as composting temperatures and feed for livestock. Foods that meet the new standards will bear a seal that reads “USDA Organic,” which should appear in stores by next summer.

Consumers “who want to buy organic can do so with the confidence of knowing exactly what it is they’re buying,” Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said in announcing the rules Wednesday at a Washington D.C. press conference. They will be “the strictest, most comprehensive organic standards in the world,” he said.

Luring New Growers

The move is expected to lure bigger growers into the small but expanding organic food market, making the pesticide-and-chemical-free products more widely available and less expensive.

Today, organic foods are anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent more expensive than conventional food products. Despite these significant costs, the demand for organic foods has increased steadily.

The Organic Trade Association reports that the industry had $1 billion in sales in 1990 and expects $6.6 billion in sales this year. “The market is astronomical,” said Eric Sideman of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Unity, Maine.

Sideman said that in the 15 years since he started working at MOFGA the state organic market has grown almost 20-fold and estimated that the development is about the same nationwide. “When I first got here we had 14 growers. Now we have 250.” But Sideman says the new standards, which he has “mixed feelings” about because he believes they favor large-scale growers, won’t necessarily impact many of Maine’s organic growers, who sell in-state for the most part.

“The rules will help people buying food from far away in large supermarkets,” Sideman explained. The new standards, will allow major supermarket chains in New York, for example, to buy from farms in Connecticut, California or Chile and still be certain the product is actually organic.

“It’s going to mean an additional standard of integrity in the marketplace and the ability to move product from state to state and country to country,” agreed Ray Green, organic program manager for California’s Department of Agriculture.

Streamlining the Process Many organic food growers and sellers say the national standards will make their jobs easier.

Of the 10,000 farms nationwide that claim to be organic, fewer than 7,000 are approved by the 88 different state or private certifying agencies around the country. Nineteen states have no regulations for organic farming. Eleven others have production standards but no certification process for ensuring that farmers comply with them.

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