By Julie Vorman
WASHINGTON, May 8 (Reuters) - U.S. regulators on Friday bowed to a torrent of
public protest and abandoned an earlier proposal that would have allowed
organic food to contain human waste, irradiation or bio-engineered material.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said it would start over again in drafting
standards for organic foods, a fast-growing industry with sales expected to
reach $4 billion this year. The USDA announcement followed a storm of
protest that included musician Willie Nelson, dozens of federal lawmakers, the
entire Vermont legislature, and a grassroots write-in campaign by 200,000
organic farmers, consumers and environmentalists.
"The department was stunned at the amount of negative publicity they got over
the proposed rule," said one congressional aide. "The USDA is very concerned
that it has lost the confidence of the organic farming industry."
The organic industry, which produces meats, vegetables, soaps, textiles and
other products, asked the USDA to establish national standards because of the
patchwork of state and regional rules governing organic products.
The controversy intensified to the point where even Agriculture Secretary Dan
Glickman recently joked in a speech that he had picked up a protest form
letter from a display at a local organic food store where he shops.
Ironically, the USDA had not planned to include what became known as "the big
three issues" in its proposed rules last December. But other members of the
Clinton Administration pressed to have sewage sludge, irradiation and
bioengineered plants included in the proposed rule.
Those practices are "safe and have important roles to play in agriculture, but
they neither fit current organic practices nor meet consumer expectations
about organics," Glickman said. "USDA is committed to developing national
organic standards that organic farmers and consumers will embrace," he added
in a statement explaining the department's decision.
USDA will wade through the 200,000 public comments before publishing a revised
organic standard proposal later this year. Once again, that proposal -- which
Glickman said will contain fundamental changes from the first draft -- will be
subject to public comment.
Although the decision pleased green groups and organic farmers, some
agribusiness groups criticized the USDA action.
A growing number of big food companies are eyeing the organic food niche,
which is growing at 20 percent each year and appeals to aging baby-boomers.
"This was clearly a decision based more on politics than on sound science,"
said Kelly Johnston, a vice president of the National Food Processors
Association, one of the few groups that supported the USDA's proposed
standards. "There is no scientific reason to exclude irradiated or biotech
And others, like the Competitive Enterprise Institute which advocates smaller
government, said there should be no federal standards at all for organic
foods. Regulation should be left up to private groups, much like kosher foods,
the CEI said.
Organic farmers cheered the announcement but said they were concerned about
the USDA's next attempt to draw up standards.
"We will continue lobbying the USDA, Congress and the White House for a
federal label for organic that maintains the rigorous standards already
established by the organic industry," said Katherine DiMatteo, head of the
Organic Trade Association.
While the USDA promised to eliminate sewage sludge, irradiation and
bioengineered materials, a number of less controversial issues remain.
On the livestock side, organic farmers want the USDA to require 100 percent
organic animal feed for meat marketed as organic, and to prohibit most
antibiotics and drugs. The standards also need to create a sliding scale of
fees for small farmers paying for organic certification, DiMatteo said.
"We're worried people may think the problem is solved now that the USDA has
given in on the big three issues. But there are still fundamental problems
that remain," said Kathleen Merrigan, a member of the National Organic
"This shows that grassroots democracy still works," Merrigan added. "Everyone
thought there was no way to beat back big industry but we did it."
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