WASHINGTON -- The federal government yesterday took the first steps toward defining and regulating organic foods, outlining a set of rules to oversee the burgeoning $3.5 billion industry.
The rules, which won't be final until next year, will implement the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which became law as interest in natural products grew among the baby boom generation.
The much-anticipated move by the Agriculture Department sidestepped the most controversial issues raised during consideration of the new rules, such as use of irradiation and crops that have been genetically altered.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said more public hearings would be held before a decision is made on those issues, which many farmers and environmental groups contend would violate the all-natural spirit of organic food.
"I have intentionally left open some of the more divisive questions," Glickman told reporters. "I think it's important to have a full national and international discussion of this issue."
The rules provide the first official definition of organic -- a product made through natural processes including using "natural" means such as lures or predators to rid plants of pests before resulting to a limited number of government-specified pesticides. The program will also govern how these products are handled, labeled and tested.
Supporters of organic farming welcomed the plan but said using irradiation, genetically altered crops and sewage sludge as fertilizer would undermine organic farming.
"The industry has a long history of operating within certain guidelines that are acceptable," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "These questions need to be answered very clearly."
The National Organics Standards Board created by Congress to help develop the proposed rules recommended against including the controversial practices.
Although organic products account for only about 1 percent of food sales nationwide, sales have grown by more than 20 percent annually since 1990 and account for $3.5 billion in annual sales. Agriculture Department officials forecast a fourfold increase in sales the next decade.
The decision whether to permit the labeling of irradiated or genetically modified food as organic could have huge international implications. There are billions of dollars at stake for companies like Monsanto Inc., Novartis AG, Zeneca Group Plc. and Dekalb Genetics, whose bio-engineered crops are ingredients in everything from cake mixes to salad oil.
Use of such corn and soybean crops, whose genes have been modified to resist bugs, weeds, disease and other chemicals, has stirred protests in Europe because of concerns that long-term safety isn't proven.
For now, Glickman said, the rules will replace a patchwork of guidelines around the country that make it impossible for consumers -- many of whom pay more for organic products -- to be sure of what they're getting. The rules also will require imported foods to meet the same standards if they are sold as organic.
"These rules are about giving consumers choices about how their food is produced," he said.
To gain an Agriculture Department seal, the proposed regulations require that raw products be 100 percent organic and that processed foods contain 95 percent organic ingredients.
Processed foods with 50 percent to 95 percent organic content could be labeled as "made with certain organic ingredients," while those with less than 50 percent organic content must specify the organic ingredients.
Those selling or labeling products that do not meet the standards could be fined up to $10,000, it said.
The rules also set standards for producing and handling the foods, including use of pesticides and a prohibition on antibiotics or hormones to stimulate growth in livestock.
About half the states now have their own organic-food regulations, and they would be permitted to issue stricter standards than the ones enforced by USDA, subject to approval by the agriculture secretary.
The Organic Trade Association estimates there are up to 12,000 organic farmers in the United States out of roughly 2 million farms nationwide. They tend to be smaller operations, usually selling vegetables and other specialty crops at local farmers' markets, to small groceries and through cooperatives.
Organic farmers face higher costs because their natural fertilizers and pest control efforts tend to be more expensive and they must hire more workers to replace the mechanization common in conventional farming. Thus, their produce costs more.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America, representing the makers name-brand foods and packaged goods, called the new uniform standards "a great service to America's consumers and the food-producing industry."
But it added that the nutrition, health and safety levels of organic and "traditionally produced products" were the same and the conventional food industry was using new techniques to reduce use of crop-protection chemicals.
The rules are open to a 90-day public comment period. At the same time, the USDA will hold "three or four" more public meetings, Glickman said. After that, the USDA will compile the suggestions and publish a final set of rules.
Spelling it out
Some of the standards proposed by the Agriculture Department for the labeling of food products as organic.
Crops Land could have no chemical pesticides or other substances applied on it for at least three years before harvest of an organic crop. Certifying agents would periodically test organic products to ensure pesticide residues are within certain limits.
Crop pests, weeds and disease would be mainly controlled through prevention, not with chemicals, or through biological methods such as wasps that kill harmful insects.
Animals could not be given hormones or antibiotics to stimulate growth. Drugs would be prohibited unless the animal is sick. Animals would be fed organic feeds. Manure would be managed to ensure it does not pollute water and so that its nutrients are recycled. Animals raised organically would exist in "health-promoting living conditions" such as access to sunlight.
Multi-ingredient products must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients to be labeled as organic.
A product with between 50 percent and 95 percent organic ingredients could be labeled "made with certain organic ingredients."
Below 50 percent organic ingredients, the label could only contain the word "organic" within the ingredients list.
Use of synthetic solvents and other non-natural processes would be discouraged.
Pub Date: 12/16/97