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.

“We’re really looking forward to accreditation of growers by a third party and harmonizing export and import, so we don’t have to ask the same questions over and over,” said Bu Nygrens, purchasing manager for Veritable Vegetable, a San Francisco organic fruit and vegetables wholesaler. Until now, she explained, individual companies had to do their own investigation of growers and shippers and those who had certified them.

But not everyone is delighted with the prospect of organic products becoming more popular.

In a written statement issued by the Washington D.C.-based National Food Processors Association, executive vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs, Dr. Rhona Applebaum said, “NFPA strongly urges the U.S. Department of Agriculture — in all its communications to consumers — to make it clear that the organic label should not be read as implying that conventional products are somehow inferior in terms of safety or nutrition.”

“The term ‘organic’ is a marketing term, referring to the manner in which the food was produced, not an indicator of quality or safety. ‘Organic’ should be seen as another choice for consumers, joining the enormous variety of safe and nutritious conventional food products on the market.”

A Holistic Approach Farmers who grow organic, however, say it’s much more than a marketing term or a set of rules.

“There’s a holistic approach to an organic dairy,” Travis Forgues, an organic dairy farmer in Alburg, Vt., told reporters after the news conference. “That approach encompasses animal health and well-being as well as the well-being of the family farm. Organics is not just a management style.”

Michael Sligh, founding chair of the National Organics Standards Board, a citizens' advisory group that helped the USDA come up with its regulations, sees organic farming as a service to society and to the environment. He hopes that in the future the government will go so far as to help farmers who choose to grow organic by sharing costs with them, as many European governments do, calling organic growers, "Farmers who are trying to do the right thing."'s Ephrat Livni and The Associated Press contributed to this report.