Organic' Label Ruled Out For Biotech, Irradiated Food
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 1998; Page A02
Intense pressure and criticism from tens of
thousands of citizens have pushed Agriculture
Secretary Dan Glickman to decide that
genetically engineered and irradiated food,
and crops fertilized with sewage sludge, should
not be allowed to be labeled "organic,"
according to an administration official.
That decision, still not formalized but
described by the official as all but inevitable,
would remove three of the more contentious
issues threatening to derail an effort to codify
for the first time a federal definition of organic
But several other elements of the USDA
proposal remain controversial, including the
rule's relatively liberal allowance for the use of
antibiotics, nonorganic feed and long-term
confinement of animals in the production of
An estimated 150,000 people flooded the
Agriculture Department with cards and letters
during the four-month comment period on the
proposal that ended yesterday -- more
comments than the department had ever
received on any single rule.
The proposed rule had left open the question
of whether gene-modified, irradiated or
sludge-fertilized crops could be deemed
organic. The vast majority of comments
opposed those ideas. Moreover, most were
personal and passionate, as opposed to
mass-produced form letters from interest
groups -- an indication of the American
public's increasingly fervent hunger for
In the end, Glickman didn't have "much
choice" but to rule out the three most
contentious categories of food, at least for
now, said the official, who is close to the
decision-making process and spoke on the
condition of anonymity. "He's a realist," the
source said. "It has to be a rule that everyone
is able to embrace. And the other side has
been too compelling."
Representatives of the organic industry said
yesterday that even those concessions would
be insufficient. Indeed, given the large gap
between what they had envisioned and what
the USDA had proposed, they already have
begun to create an alternative, independent
national system for certifying organic farms
and food. That system, they said, would be
more in keeping with the stricter standards
now in place in several states and European
"We see at least 66 major deal breakers in this
proposed rule," said Michael Sligh, who until
last year chaired the National Organic
Standards Board, created by Congress in 1990
to oversee the creation and implementation of
an organic food rule.
"USDA must rewrite this rule," Sligh said at a
news conference. "That's the only way to
regain public trust."
Glickman said he could not comment
specifically on how the department would
respond to what he called the "extraordinary"
wave of public opinion generated by the
proposed rule, but he did promise "significant
modifications" in a final rule that he hoped
would be approved by the end of this year
after allowing for additional comments.
He said he had never considered the proposal
perfect, but given the enormous delays that
had plagued the rule-making process since
Congress demanded standards in 1990, he was
proud to get the process going.
"We knew there were areas that were not
complete and there would be controversy," he
said. "But rather than work on it for another
seven years, we said, 'Let's get the rule out and
get started.' "
Pressure on Glickman rose this week when
dozens of members of Congress signed letters
criticizing the proposal. Even agricultural
biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. declared in
a letter to Glickman last week that it favored
delaying any effort to include genetically
engineered foods on a national list of approved
organic products -- a move some saw as a
defensive effort to preclude a permanent ban.
Philip Angell, a spokesman for the St.
Louis-based Monsanto, said the company
decided to press for a delay in consideration of
genetically engineered foods so the company
could examine the issue more closely. "We are
in the process of developing extensive data
showing the sustainable agriculture benefits
and the other benefits of some biotech crops . .
. that are in keeping with the concept of
organic," he said.
Beyond clarifying the meaning of organic for
consumers, a federal definition could have
significant economic implications domestically
and internationally. The $4 billion U.S. organic
industry is growing by more than 20 percent a
year, spurring many of the nation's bigger food
conglomerates to try to cash in on the word's
cachet. But the lack of federal standards for
the term organic -- which generally means
"free of synthetic chemicals and pesticides"
but also encompasses broader concepts of
environmentally sound food production -- has
threatened to undermine consumer confidence
Sligh and others representing the organic food
industry said they were especially troubled by
a provision in the proposed rule that gives the
agriculture secretary authority to add products
to a national list of approved organic foods.
Organic industry advocates argue that
Congress granted those powers only to the
National Organic Standards Board.
If Glickman insists on retaining that authority
in a final rule, advocates said, a lawsuit is
likely to follow.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post
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