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USDA Won't Lower Marks for Organic Foods

Agriculture: Agency says it will begin survey of availability of feed grain as part of farm bill signed last month.

June 12, 2002|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Agriculture Department, whose move to consider loosening the standards by which meat can be labeled organic sparked public outcry, said Monday that it would not make any changes to the new rules and that they will be implemented in October as planned.

"We are fully implementing it as it is written," said USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison.

Organic farming officials said the move is a tentative victory in maintaining the integrity of the organic label, which was called into question after USDA officials said they were considering a request by a Georgia poultry company to allow it and other livestock companies to sell meat that had not been given 100% organic feed.

Fieldale Farms Corp., the company asking for the feed waiver, said there was not enough organic feed available in the market to supply its and others' needs--a point that industry officials disputed.

Officials of the Organic Trade Assn., which represents the organic food industry, said such a decision would have rendered the term organic meaningless for a wide range of products.

The USDA will begin looking into availability of organic grain for this rapidly growing industry, surveying farmers through 2004 as required by the farm bill signed by President Bush last month. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) urged Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman to aid farmers looking to convert to organic feed production without weakening federal rules.

Harrison would not say whether the USDA would consider any further exemptions or waivers based upon the survey's findings.

Meanwhile, Fieldale officials said the firm will sell only as much organic chicken as it can obtain feed for, and will divert the rest to its "antibiotic free" label.

Fieldale said it will continue to lobby the USDA to "provide for flexibility in labeling" and "commercial availability."

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