CNN.com - Food Central - News - Biotech foods not 'organic' under
rules - March 7, 2000
Biotech foods not 'organic' under new rules
New federal guidelines proposed
From staff and wire reports
March 7, 2000
Web posted at: 3:50 p.m. EST (2050 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Foods that are genetically modified or
irradiated would not be considered "organic" under federal
guidelines proposed Tuesday and expected to take effect later this
year. The Agriculture Department revised its proposal following a
flood of negative comments following its first attempt at setting a
national standard for organic foods.
Until now, rules governing organic food varied from state to state.
While the new rules create organic standards for the first time on
a national level, they are not a federal government endorsement of
organic foods -- such as crops produced without synthetic
chemicals, or animals raised without antibiotics or other drugs.
"The organic classification is not a judgment about the quality or
safety of any product. Organic is about how it is produced. It is a
process issue," said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman
"Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean it is
... superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food. All
foods in this country must meet the same high standard of safety
regardless of their classification," he said at a Washington news
What the rules say
The proposals, covering fruit, vegetables and meat, say that:
· Foods labeled "100-percent organic" must contain only organically
produced raw or processed products.
· Foods labeled as "organic" must be at least 95 percent organically
produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).
· Foods that contain 50-95 percent organic ingredients can use the
phrase "made with organic (specific ingredients)" and list up to
three such ingredients on the main label.
· Foods that contain less than 50 percent organic ingredients can
not use the word "organic" on the main label, only on a side label
that lists all ingredients.
Proposals rewritten after criticism
In late 1997, the Agriculture Department first proposed national
guidelines for labeling and marketing organic food and clothing
but was deluged with nearly 300,000 comments -- most of them
Environmentalists, farmers, consumers, the entire Vermont
Legislature and celebrities, including musician Willie Nelson 
, wrote comments, mostly in opposition to the regulations as
Critics objected to putting the "organic" label on foods grown
from genetically modified seeds, treated by disease-killing
irradiation and fertilized by sewage sludge recycled by municipal
Agriculture Department officials spent the last two years
reviewing the letters and have rewritten guidelines to finally
govern what exactly can be labeled as "organic."
This time around, biotechnology, sewage sludge and irradiation
will not be considered organic.
Dr. Val Giddings, of the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry
Organization trade group, denounced the proposals. "This proposed
rule will deny organic farmers the benefit of the newest varieties
(of genetically modified foods) in a way that will come back to
haunt them," he said.
"Foods derived from crops through biotechnology have been
subjected to more analysis for safety than any other foods in the
history of humanity," Giddings told CNN. "They are demonstrably at
least as safe as and, in some cases, safer than the (conventional)
foods we enjoy today."
No national standard
The organic food industry has been growing at a rate of 20 percent
annually over the past decade. Sales from about 12,000 organic
farmers nationwide are expected to reach $6 billion this year,
according to the Organic Trade Association.
But the industry said it needed federal standards to maintain the
Currently, organic standards vary among state and private sector
certifiers. For example, an orange labeled "organic" in one state
may be raised completely differently than an "organic" orange from
The industry has said that without guidelines, there is nothing to
back up the claim that a product is organic, raising questions
among consumers about whether an organic label really means
anything -- and whether it is worth paying more for food designated
Critics of the organic industry say the rules could lead consumers
into thinking organic products are safer or more nutritious than
conventional food. There is no evidence that is true, said
Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at
the University of California- Davis.
"I hope they will understand what organic means and make this an
informed choice," she said.
Costly for organic farmers?
Some organic farmers, many of whom run small operations and sell
close to home, have expressed concern that the new guidelines will
impose a costly system on them.
"I am concerned that the charges connected with this new system
will be so high that small farmers won't be able to afford it,"
said Elizabeth Henderson, an organic vegetable farmer in Wayne
County, New York.
Organic industry representatives say that this time they are
confident their voices have been heard, largely after the
Agriculture Department hired someone who had been critical of the
initial USDA proposal to head up the task of rewriting the
government organic standards.
Kathleen Merrigan was hired by the USDA in June from the Henry
Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. After the initial
rules came out, Merrigan wrote a 100-page, single-spaced response
to the USDA on behalf of the Institute, most of it pointing out
flaws in the agency's proposals.
And, when Congress passed a bill a decade ago that ordered the
Agriculture Department to create rules for organic food and
clothing that would be enforced nationwide, Merrigan was working
for Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who was head of the
Senate Agriculture Committee. Merrigan drafted the legislation for
the organic rules.
The rules will be published in the Federal register on Wednesday,
the beginning of a 90-day period for public comment.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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