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Action Alert: U.S. Organic Standards Threatened
February 24, 2003
The new U.S. organic standards, which went into effect in October of 2002, are in serious danger of being weakened. Originally the standards required organic livestock to be raised on 100% organic feed. Recent changes will allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to certify meat, chicken and eggs as "organic" even if the animals have been fed on conventionally produced grain.
A last minute amendment to a spending bill passed by the U.S. Congress on February 13, 2003, would not require enforcement of the 100% organic feed requirement if the USDA confirms that organically produced feed costs more than twice as much as conventional feed. Organic advocates urge U.S. voters to contact their representatives and urge them to support a repeal of these changes.
The New York Times reports the rule change was added to the massive spending bill at meeting held behind closed doors with only Republicans in attendance. The rider was slipped in at the request of Representative Nathan Deal, a Republican from the state of Georgia, who received US$4,000 in campaign contributions from employees of a poultry producer seeking an exemption to feed his chickens a mix of conventional and organic feed.
"The language is a threat to the organic label," said spokeswoman Holly Givens of the Organic Trade Association, which consists of organic suppliers and sellers. "And the fact that it was done in an underhanded way should not be allowed to stand as a precedent for other people to try."
When the changes were made public, Senator Patrick Leahy, (D-VT) one of the authors of the 1990 "Organic Foods Production Act," announced that he would introduce a bill to reverse the change after Congress re-convenes February 24, 2003. Leahy asserts, "Getting the organic standards that are behind the ‘USDA Organic’ label right was a long and difficult process, but critically important to the future of the industry. Along the way, some tried to allow products treated with sewer sludge, irradiation, and antibiotics to be labeled ‘organic.’ The public outcry against this was overwhelming. More than 325,000 people weighed in during the comment period. The groundswell of support for strong standards clearly showed that the public wants "organic" to really mean something. Those efforts to hijack the term were defeated, and this one should be too."
In the days since the changes were slipped through Congress, major food firms with organic products such as General Mills and Tyson’s Foods have denounced the rollback in the standards, but officials at USDA attending the closed-door session remained neutral. "This department did not take a position on this" said Alisa Harrison, spokeswoman for Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "The department is ready to enforce the clause. We have to meet the will of Congress, so we will add a price component to a study that we began last year on the availability of organic feed."
"I think this jeopardizes the whole organic industry in the Unites States," Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) said of the provision. Senator Leahy and Representative Farr are drafting legislation to repeal the changes that will need a wide number of sponsors in both the Senate and House in order to pass.The National Campaign For Sustainable Agriculture and the Organic Trade Association Organic are asking people to urge their legislators to sign on to a repeal of Section 771 of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill.
Contact your legislators through a direct link at the Organic Trade Association website at http://www.ota.com.
Weakening of Organic Standard Is Considered, New York Times, Feb. 14, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/14/politics/14ORGA.html.
National Campaign For Sustainable Agriculture press release, February 14, 2003, http://www.sustainableagriculture.net/organicRelease.php.
Agri-Business Examiner, and Associated Press, Even Bush Administration and Producers Back Away from Organic Standards Bill Change While USDA Remains "Neutral," Issue 223, February 22, 2003.
National Campaign For Sustainable Agriculture, P.O. Box 396, Pine Bush, New York 12566; phone (845) 744-8448; fax (845) 744-8477; http://www.SustainableAgriculture.net, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Organic Trade Association, http://www.ota.com.