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Congress Takes Aim at Organic Food Standards -- Again

Local Matters


Published September 27, 2005 at 8:30 p.m.

VERMONT -- A proposal that's quietly making its way through the U.S. Senate could change the way organic farms, dairies and food processors are certified, according to one national organic foods organization. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA), an industry watchdog group, says that an amendment to a federal appropriations bill is part of a larger effort by the Bush administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and large corporate food processors to "seriously degrade" organic food standards that have been in place for the last 15 years.

Those concerns arose last week when the OCA learned about a rider attached to the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Bill. It would, among other things, alter the rules under which dairy farms shift from conventional to organic practices. According to the OCA, the rider would also permit more synthetic, or non-organic, ingredients into "organic" foods, and take some of the authority for regulating those materials away from the National Organics Standards Board to give it to the USDA.

Ronnie Cummins is the OCA's national director. He claims this rider, which has been portrayed by large food processors as a "minor rules change" to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, would allow as many as 500 new synthetic ingredients to be used by certified organic food producers. Current law permits only 38 synthetic ingredients, and requires that they comprise less than 5 percent of the finished product. Most of these materials are fairly benign, such as the hydrogen peroxide involved in cleaning organic milk bottles.

Organic farming is the fastest growing sector of Vermont's agricultural economy, in terms of both the number of farms and their gross sales, according to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. While the state's conventional dairy production has been shrinking by about 6 percent per year, organic dairies are growing by 20 percent annually. Moreover, organic dairy farmers are paid about twice as much for their milk as those at conventional dairies, and the rate they receive is more stable.

For decades, organic farms and dairies were mostly small, family-owned operations that adhered to organic practices for philosophical and health reasons. Then, after Congress established strict national standards in 1990, organic foods grew into a multibillion-dollar industry. Many national producers have since launched their own lines of organic foods -- Smuckers owns Santa Cruz Organics, Kraft owns Boca Burgers, and Dean Foods owns Horizon Organic.

Cummins says that those large producers are now looking for ways to whittle away at the strict standards, and are using the Organic Trade Association, an industry group they now control, to promote their own agenda.

"Standing in the corner is Wal-Mart, which announced that it's going to be the biggest seller of organic food in the world," Cummins says. "Wal-Mart wants their product now and they want it cheap. And the only way to get organic cheap is to bend the rules."

The Organic Trade Association is 100 percent behind the proposed rider. Although Cummins emphasizes that it wouldn't allow genetically modified organisms into the organic food supply, he calls it "a slippery slope," and notes that it was the USDA that first supported the use of GMOs, food irradiation and toxic sludge as fertilizer.

"If the Secretary of Agriculture were Bernie Sanders, we wouldn't have a problem," adds Cummins, who is based in Minnesota. "But we've got to be realistic about giving that power to the U.S. Department of Agriculture with literally no checks and balances from the National Organics Standards Board."

But John Cleary, NOFA-Vermont's certification director, cautions local farmers and consumers against making too much of this regulatory proposal. Cleary explains that many of the changes in this rider, which were proposed in response to a federal court ruling earlier this year, are rather technical, such as the amount of time cows must get organic feed before the herd can be "certified." Moreover, he says some of the fears raised by the OCA are "fairly exaggerated" and won't have a major impact on Vermont's organic farmers -- at least for now.

Cleary points out that NOFA-Vermont did oppose this policy change, nevertheless. And he suggests it's still important that organic producers remain vigilant about any effort that could undermine organic farming standards. For example, Cummins notes that Vermont's organic dairies remain competitive nationally because they are mostly up against other small farms. Since organic dairies are required to graze their cows, this naturally limits how many cows can be raised on a given pasture, he explains. But there are ways to get around that rule. One organic dairy farm in Colorado found a loophole in the law that permits it to keep 5000 cows. Consequently, it puts out more organic milk than is produced in the entire state of Vermont.

"Is organic farming going to be taken over by the factory-farm model? That's not the case yet," Cleary says. "But things could head in that direction if the organic standards are not vigorously defended."

The 2006 Agriculture Appropriations bill could be voted on as early as this week.