Labeling standards for organic foods

Margo Turner’s Column


American consumers will see this summer new labeling for organic foods under the first national standards for growing and producing products without the use of genetic engineering, irradiation, pesticides or growth hormones.

In late December 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled its final rule on national standards for organic foods.

“For farmers, the standards create clear guidelines for how to take advantage of the exploding demand for organic products,” Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said. “For consumers, the organic standards offer another choice in the marketplace. Those who want to buy organic can do so with the confidence of knowing exactly what it is that they’re buying.”

The final rule comes three years after the USDA first proposed national organic standards. The USDA withdrew these standards after the agency was criticized for allowing organic labels on foods that were irradiated or contain genetically modified organisms, chemicals, antibiotics or sewage sludge.

The USDA made drastic changes to the rule in March 2000 with input from consumer and environmental advocates and industry leaders, according to Glickman.

Under the USDA’s National Organic Program, products labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients” must be 70 percent organic, compared to the 50 percent minimum proposed last March. Organic farmers will be required to use organic ingredients in organic products whenever possible.

Farmers are allowed to post their products’ exact percentage of organic content on the primary display label. “The idea here is that the ability to boast a specific number will encourage more folks to use more organic ingredients,” Glickman explained.

The National Organic Program has no inspectors to examine produce to determine whether they are organic or not. Instead the program will rely on certifying agencies accredited by the USDA.

Although the USDA organic seal is good news for consumer choice, the federal government must ensure that consumers aren’t misled by the labels, said Dr. Susan Ferenc, vice president of scientific and regulatory policy for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), a Washington, D.C.-based organization representing food, beverage and consumer product companies.

“GMA believes that the USDA must conduct post-market consumer research to closely monitor public understanding of the meaning of the new marketing shield approved for organically produced foods,” Dr. Ferenc pointed out. “If evidence comes to light that the USDA’s new marketing seal misleads consumers into believing that organic foods are safer or better than other foods, the seal should be redesigned or removed.”

The organic label is a marketing tool and not a statement about food safety, Glickman noted.

“USDA is not in the business of choosing sides, of 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.”

The Organic Trade Association, which represents all segments of the organic industry in North America, views the USDA rule a “significant milestone for the U.S. organic industry,” Executive Director Katherine DiMatteo said.

Ms. DiMatteo pointed out that organic product sales have grown at least 20 percent each year since 1990, resulting in an estimated $7.76 billion in retail sales during 2000.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate’s leading champion of organic agriculture, said the organic rule comes none too soon for the organic farming industry, which has experienced tremendous growth since 1990 when Congress passed Organic Foods Production Act. The number of American farms using organic agricultural practices have grown from about 1,500 in 1990 to 20,000 today, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Leahy sponsored the Organic Foods Production Act, which established a framework to create national standards for certifying organic food products. “I feel like a proud father,” Leahy said, referring to the finalization of the National Organic Program rule.

Legislation to require the labeling of food that contains a genetically engineered material or a product with a genetically engineered material is stalled in the House.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (R-Ohio) introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act (H.R. 3377) in November 1999. The bill remains in the House Committee on Commerce.