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A Growing Controversy

Organic Food Folks Fight Federal Plan

April 17, 1998|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The verdict is in, and the state's farmers and environmentalists have found the U.S. Department of Agriculture guilty.

Guilty, that is, of proposing regulations for the nation's organic food business that ignore the industry's practices, philosophy and desires.

At a rally Thursday in Sacramento, leaders of the state's organic farming and food community railed against the proposed rules, demanding that the USDA go back to the drawing board. Otherwise, they said, the federal government risks undermining California's 8-year-old organic farming law, one of the nation's strongest.

"We don't want them to amend this proposal," said Joan Clayburgh, a spokeswoman for Californians for Pesticide Reform, a San Francisco organization that espouses organic farming methods. "We want them to throw it out."

Organic activists in California aren't alone in their opposition. The USDA has been swamped with more than 100,000 letters, postcards and e-mails, most of them highly critical of the rules.

The agency appears to be getting the message. For several weeks, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has been reassuring grower groups that changes will be made.

The USDA published its proposal in December after seven years of haggling and information-gathering. The outpouring of opinion prompted the agency to extend the public-comment period for the rules to April 30.

About 70,000 of the responses are form letters, including 16,000 from readers of Organic Gardening magazine and 34,000 from customers of Working Assets, a San Francisco company that sells long-distance phone service and gives part of its revenue to socially responsible groups.

The agency has also heard from leading organic food companies, including Pavich Family Farms, growers of organic grapes, raisins and nuts, based in Terra Bella; Horizon Organic Dairy in Boulder, Colo.; and Cascadian Farm, a producer of frozen desserts, vegetables and other items, based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash.

And it has gotten an earful from the growing ranks of customers of natural food chains such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods Market, which have distributed pamphlets to mobilize grass-roots support.

In particular, food processors and retailers are critical of what they see as three key stumbling blocks: irradiation, biotechnology and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. As the proposal stands, those three processes would not be outlawed--contrary to the vociferously stated wishes of the industry. Activists have charged that the rules were designed to accommodate agribusiness concerns, which see the $3.5-billion organic food industry as a hot growth area.

Industry leaders say the agency could save itself time and trouble by adopting the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board, a panel established by law in 1990 to advise the USDA. In preparing its proposal, the agency largely ignored the board's suggestions.

In a letter to Glickman early this week, California Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said the state Department of Food and Agriculture would be submitting records from four public hearings held on the issue throughout the state in January, February and March. She urged the agency to "revise the rule to ensure a strong organic program."

Mail-Order W(h)ine

California wine retailers are puzzling over the latest wrinkle in a long-running battle over direct-mail wine sales.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to take up a legal battle between mail-order "wine clubs" and states over the regulation of alcoholic beverage sales. Without comment, the court let stand rulings that rejected Florida's effort to sue in federal court to stop what state officials call "illegal interstate bootlegging."

At least one Southern California wine retailer was hopeful that the action would make it legal to ship wine to Florida customers.

Not so. It simply means that the high court is leaving the matter up to the states. Florida still has a law making it a felony for wineries or retailers to ship wine directly to customers in the state.

"We'll continue to have to fight them," said Ron Loutherback, proprietor of three Wine Club retail shops in California.

Florida had sued Wine Club (which is a retailer, not a wine club per se) and three other vendors over direct shipments, saying they failed to pay various state taxes and fees. A federal judge threw out the suit, but Florida is appealing.

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Martha Groves can be reached by e-mail at martha.groves@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 473-2480.

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