New York Times
March 4, 2000
By MARIAN BURROS
WASHINGTON, March 4 -- More than two years after the federal government's
first effort to define and regulate organic food failed to win public
approval, the Department of Agriculture is announcing much tougher rules
that prohibit the use of genetically modified ingredients in products
carrying the organic label. The rules also prohibit the use of irradiation
to decontaminate the products and the application of sewage sludge as
The rules, to be announced within a few days, could take effect by the end
of the year.
Of the more than 275,000 comments received in response to the original
proposal in 1997, virtually all of them opposed those three processes,
which the Agriculture Department had considered allowing.
The new rules indicate an about-face in the department's attitude toward
organic farming and represent one of several steps it is taking to help
the small and medium-sized farmers who have mainly been ignored or even
discriminated against by the agency for decades.
The national standards could help American producers sell organic food
"This could turn out to be the most important rule U.S.D.A. has issued in
20 years," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, of the Union of Concerned Scientists,
an environmental advocacy group.
"The Agriculture Department's policies have made small farmers an
Now it is trying to construct a system to allow small farmers to help them
survive, to help them flourish. It is also a turning point in its
relationship to consumers. The agency has never before been responsive to
consumers' desires or demands."
In an interview, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said that if the
public thought the standards were too strict they should let the
department know during the 90-day comment period before the agency enacts
the final rules.
"I'd rather go from too strict standards and ease them than going the
other way," Mr. Glickman said.
After initially ignoring many of the recommendations of the National
Organic Standards Board, which had been set up to help the agency
formulate the regulations, the Agriculture Department has now taken all of
the board's advice, including total prohibition of antibiotics in animals
raised as organic.
When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, sales of
organic food had reached $1 billion: projected sales for 1999 are $6.46
Under the new rules, raw products could carry the federal agency's organic
seal on the front of packaging if they were 100 percent organic, meaning
that they are grown and manufactured without the use of added hormones,
pesticides or synthetic fertilizer.
Processed food made from at least 95 percent organic ingredients could
also carry the seal. And processed food containing at least 50 percent
organic ingredients could be labeled "made with organic ingredients."
Irradiation, genetic modification and the use of sludge would be
prohibited not only in the organic ingredients but in the conventional
ingredients in foods made partly with organic ingredients.
Products with less than 50 percent organic ingredients may use the word
organic only in the list of ingredients; the prohibition against those
three processes would not apply.
Advocates of organic farming say that the standards have set the bar very
high for organic farmers in the United States, possibly discouraging them
from growing organic crops.
"The document is certainly much closer to meeting industry expectations
than the first one but the pendulum may have swung too far," said
Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
"I am afraid that some people are not going to bother to be organic
One of the areas of concern that has been left vague in the new rules is
how to treat organic crops that have been contaminated with drift from
nearby genetically engineered crops. An Agriculture Department official
said a farmer would not be penalized if some low level of inadvertent
As part of a larger effort to help the more than 12,000 organic farmers,
the administration's budget for the first time includes a $5.5 million
request for organic research. In addition, the Agriculture Department has
a pilot project for crop insurance for organic farmers.
"We need economic avenues for small- and medium-size farms," Mr. Glickman
The public can send comments to the Agriculture Department on the Internet
at www.ams.usda.gov/nop, or by mail.
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