Handing a long-sought victory to organic food activists, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday that it is allowing meat and poultry products to carry a label indicating that they have been certified as organic.
"This announcement means more information--and more choice--for American consumers," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said. "It will help organic family farmers and ranchers further expand their already growing markets."
The change is effective immediately.
Organic activists had lobbied for years for such a policy change. In late 1997, the USDA proposed federal rules to govern the organic industry, but because of wrangling between the organic industry and agriculture officials, those have yet to be finalized. Glickman's action thus provides an interim fix for meat and poultry producers.
Organic meat, poultry and egg products come from farms that have been inspected to verify that they meet standards mandating the use of organic feed, prohibiting the use of antibiotics and requiring that animals have access to fresh air and sunlight.
Until this change, meat and poultry producers have been hampered in their ability to use the organic label. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which inspects most slaughterhouses, has not allowed such products to be labeled organic.
A few small producers of organic meat and poultry have built a direct-sales business with customers in the U.S. and overseas.
But a federal label promises to open up new markets, producers said.
Producers will be able to use the label if they are certified by a private or state certifying entity and seek approval from the USDA.
The overall organic industry in the U.S. is approaching $4.5 billion.
Allen Shainsky, owner of Petaluma Poultry Processors in Petaluma, Calif., home of Rocky the Range Chicken, said he expects sales to rise 10% to 15% once he slaps the organic label on Rocky's organic counterpart, Rosie the Organic Chicken.
The product is already certified by Oregon Tilth, a prominent certifying organization.
Certified organic meat products have been the only category of certified products prohibited from including the word "organic" on the label.
"Glickman is very sensitive to the current ag crisis," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Assn., a 900-member association in Alexandria, Va.
"Prices are not good for farmers, and there are very few premium or specialty markets for small growers and producers." Thus, she said, he was open to the organic proponents' arguments.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., a trade group representing mainstream producers, said it supports giving consumers a choice. "But our concern is to make sure that claims are not made that would imply that the generic beef in your meat case is unsafe," said Alisa Harrison, a spokeswoman for the Denver organization.