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Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the full implementation of the country’s first national organic food standards. Over the course of the next several months, consumers will begin seeing a green-and-white label identifying foods as “USDA Organic.” That label represents the culmination of a nearly 20-year struggle by small-scale family farmers, environmentalists, and consumers to create a viable alternative to our current industrial agricultural system. It is the marketplace moniker of a new food future based on pesticide-free, low-input, ecologically based farming. And it represents a moment for celebration. But it also signals a moment for concern. For at least the next two years, the organic standards will be implemented, enforced, and potentially amended by the administration of President George W. Bush. The Bush administration is heavily supported by agribusiness. And unfortunately, it has been openly hostile to the organic movement. GROWING ORGANIC That we even have organic standards today is due to the exponential growth of the alternative agricultural system. That movement led to the 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Act and the subsequent development of national regulations establishing the substantive standards of what it means to be “organic.” Along the way, the organic ideal has engendered widespread public support. In 1997, more than 275,000 people sent comments to the USDA to urge, among other things, that its new standards not permit the use of genetic engineering, irradiation, and sewage sludge in the production of organic foods. Those comments represent the largest public outpouring to the USDA concerning any food issue. The public has backed up this political response in the marketplace. Organic agriculture is expanding faster than any other sector in U.S. food production. It is currently a $9 billion industry growing at 20 percent annually and involving thousands of farmers. The establishment of strong national standards is another critical step. All the advocates who fought so long should be congratulated. But as noted, they now face the implementation and enforcement of the standards by an administration that seems to doubt their very value. Indeed, just two days after announcing the new organic label, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano told attendees at the World Food Prize symposium that consumers should be wary of organically grown foods because their lack of preservatives raises greater food safety concerns than do conventional foods. The Bush administration’s open animosity toward organic food production could ultimately compromise the integrity of alternative agriculture by allowing industrial, and even inhumane, farming practices to qualify under the organic label. The threats range from the creation of an insular organic bureaucracy devoid of public accountability, to the dumbing down of substantive standards. SIGNED OFF AND CERTIFIED Advocates have already raised questions about whether the federal bureaucracy is properly performing its new role as accreditor of organic-certifying organizations — that is, the private or state entities that will ensure that organic farmers are actually adhering to organic farming practices and standards. Fueling public concern is the appearance of numerous new, previously unknown certifying agents applying for accreditation into the USDA program. During development of the final standards in 2000, the USDA identified 49 existing organic certifying agents, including 13 state programs. The department predicted that there would be no growth in the number of certifying agents seeking accreditation in the new program. Contrary to such projections, the number of applicants to the organic program now totals 122. Facing this unexpected flood, will the USDA be able to properly assess prospective certifiers for adherence to accreditation norms? The Organic Foods Production Act anticipated possible bureaucratic threats to the integrity of the organic label by requiring a public oversight mechanism. The purpose of the Peer Review Panel is to ensure that the USDA’s accreditation procedures are followed and that “sham” certifiers do not get a free pass to enter and potentially undermine the national program. The panel is critical to creating and maintaining consumer confidence in the integrity of the organic label. After all, the label is only as good as the certifying agents that enforce the organic standards. Unfortunately, while the USDA has allowed a number of new certifiers into the program, it has yet to establish the Peer Review Panel. This flouting of the law has already shaken consumer confidence in the organic label. Earlier this year, one company, Fieldale Farms, attempted to pressure the USDA into relaxing the 100 percent organic feed requirement for organic chicken production. While the department has not, as least as yet, acceded to this demand, the program did accredit Fieldale’s organic certifying agent, the Georgia Crop Improvement Association. But serious questions have been raised as to how thoroughly the USDA scrutinized the accreditation application — and whether the processes of accreditation review and decision making are rigorous enough to prevent acceptance of new certifying agents intent on manipulating or weakening the organic standards. As if the oversight concerns are not enough, the organic program also faces threats to its standards in the form of both direct industry attack and bureaucratic inaction. The Fieldale incident is likely just the beginning of a prolonged industry attack on the substance of the organic standards. The United Egg Producers, an organization representing the majority of industrial-style egg producers, is now openly seeking to overturn the requirement that organic chickens have access to the outdoors, and a recently announced USDA policy seems to grant the industry’s wish. A company from Colorado is requesting an exemption from the prohibition of most synthetic substances in organic food by trying to claim that the substances left behind during its process of creating “organic” high fructose corn syrup are de minimus. As the organic program seeks to fend off these attacks, it leaves the public wondering at what point will the administration’s antipathy toward organic win out over the integrity of the hard-fought standards. TAKE A RECOMMENDATION In addition to defending the standards against the undermining efforts of industry, the USDA needs to be proactive in its support of organic foods through an evolving regulatory process. As part of the ongoing evolution of organic standards, the Organic Foods Production Act created an advisory committee consisting of farmers, certifiers, consumers, environmentalists, and food processors called the National Organic Standards Board. The board advises the secretary of agriculture on the content of organic standards and maintains control over the list of substances allowed in organic farming. It is the board’s recommendations that make up the bulk of the final regulations relating to the “USDA Organic” label. The board adheres to a democratic process in which draft recommendations are open for public comment, and public testimony is regularly solicited. That process was critical in developing some type of consensus on the parameters of the national program prior to completion of the final “USDA Organic” rules. However, since finalizing those rules in 2000, the USDA has failed to take action on any further board recommendations. Over the last two-plus years, the board has worked to provide the department with new recommendations on issues as varied as the makeup of organic animal feed and the creation of organic compost. Yet the department has failed to convert any of these recommendations into new rules. This regulatory paralysis has left many producers with interests in these recommendations in limbo. It has also left advocates concerned that the new program will stagnate in the years to come. The USDA needs to take several actions to strengthen the public-private partnership between the USDA and the National Organic Standards Board and to maintain the integrity of the organic standards. First, it needs to uphold the institutional capacity of the board by providing staffing and support, and ensuring that new appointees have demonstrated experience in, and support of, organic agriculture. Political attempts to pack the board with conventional agribusiness advocates will be a sure-fire means of undermining public confidence in the entire organic program. Second, the department needs to act upon recommendations made by the board on a regular basis so that USDA regulations constantly reflect the state of the art in organic principles and practice. BIOTECH’S THREAT The USDA also needs to address threats to organic agricultural policies promoted by the department itself, especially its strong support of biotechnology. As written, the national organic program places the financial and logistical burden on organic farmers to prevent the contamination of their crops by genetically engineered crops. Concern over genetically engineered food is one of the reasons the organic market is booming, and the purity of organic produce is a key market condition for the acceptance of U.S. organic exports abroad. The USDA must find a way to place the burden of preventing such contamination on the purveyors of the technology, where it properly belongs, and not on the backs of organic farmers. Unfortunately, creative thinking on this front is unlikely to come from the current administration. This past summer, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman proclaimed that genetic engineering could offer the same environmental benefits as organic farming. That hardly suggests a department ready and eager to address a problem that threatens the very nature of organic agriculture. So as the new organic label makes a welcomed entrance into stores across the country, it is critical that the USDA also take the next steps to prevent any erosion of consumer confidence in the integrity of the organic label. To that end, on Oct. 15, the Center for Food Safety and several other organizations filed a legal petition with the USDA giving the department its last chance to create the critical Peer Review Panel before litigation is filed. Unfortunately, without new action from the USDA, the petition may just be the beginning of a new multiyear battle to ensure that the organic program does not become a victim of governmental abuse and neglect. Joseph Mendelson III is legal director for the D.C.-based Center for Food Safety (www.centerforfoodsafety.org).

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