A federal battle is brewing over the definition of organic food, pitting the stalwarts in the industry, who insist that consumer confidence rests on organic purity, against government officials advocating compromise. For a $13-billion organic food industry experiencing explosive growth, the stakes are high.
Neither side is ready to give much ground.
Last week, Round 1 in the battle ended in a black eye for the United States Department of Agriculture. Under pressure from Congress and a cohesive organic food industry, USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman rescinded four directives recently issued by her staff that would have allowed certain exceptions to the current organic food standards, established in 2002.
The idea was to clarify some gray areas in the regulations. Specifically, the directives would have added pesticides of questionable toxicity to the list of approved treatments for organic crops, allowed the treatment of organic dairy cows with antibiotics and permitted the use of fish meal, which may contain mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or both, as food for organic dairy cows. Most troubling to the organic food industry, the USDA sidestepped federally mandated reviews.
The USDA staff is not dropping the matter there.
Barbara Robinson, deputy administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service and the author of the directives, manages the National Organic Program.
At the end of April, Robinson published the directives, intending, she says, to clarify the regulations. "We had been asked many questions about what was enforceable and thought the best way to answer those questions was by posting these clarifications on our website," she says.
She published the directives on the eve of the biannual meeting in Chicago of the National Organic Standards Board, a legislatively mandated body of private citizens who review what substances can, and cannot, be allowed in food labeled organic.
Presented with the directives as a fait accompli, the board saw red. "As I learned more about the directives, I became increasingly concerned that the USDA was radically rewriting the standards without outside comment," says Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist at Environmental Defense and a member of the board.
"All of the directives relaxed the standards, allowing things that would never be considered organic," Goldburg says, noting that allowing milk from dairy cows that have been treated with antibiotics to be labeled organic was particularly problematic. "They were making the standards much less stringent, devaluing the standards to make them easier to meet."
After the Chicago meeting, the watchdog group Consumers Union sounded the alarm, issuing press releases and rallying members to fight the directives. Much of the rest of the organic food industry quickly joined the chorus of protest.
"If you work with the [organic] industry, you realize there is an almost constant conversation that happens through e-mails," Robinson says. "A lot of groups were writing letters, urging their members to contact the department. They are passionate, and when they get united about a particular issue, they are pretty vocal."
Soon, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), author of the 1990 legislation that gave rise to the organic food standards, jumped into the fray, with several other members of the Senate threatening to lock arms beside him.
On May 26, less than a month after they were posted, Veneman rescinded the directives.
Still, Robinson insists that the directives, and the compromises they represent, are the right way to go. She plans to continue to pursue them. This time, however, she is starting with a presentation to the organic standards board.
"I believe we have it right," Robinson says. "But when you get that type of reaction, you have to wonder if there isn't a communication problem."
Says Goldburg, "It's terrific they are getting public comment this time. It will be interesting to see if they go forward in the face of the criticism I suspect they will hear."
The second round promises to be as public, and as contentious, as this recent clash.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy detailed his concerns in a draft letter to USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman that was circulating in Congress before she rescinded the new directives. Certain areas of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the resulting USDA regulations issued in 2002 would have been violated by the department's directives, according to that letter.
The following regulations remain in force:
* The only synthetic pesticides allowed in organic production are those products specifically reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board, deemed suitable for organic production and added to the USDA list as permitted substances.
* Fish meal is not allowed in the production of organic livestock.
* The producer of an organic livestock operation must not sell, label or represent as organic any animal or edible product derived from any animal treated with antibiotics, with limited exceptions.
-- Corie Brown