Dear Concerned Consumer:
We know you care about the planet and the purity and safety of your food supply. We know you can already buy products with organic labels - everything from cilantro to cantaloupe, from peppers to pumpernickel bread, from tofu to turkey.
But soon - perhaps as early as next month - the U.S. Department of Agriculture is going to try to make life easier for you and for everyone who has an interest in the rapidly growing market for "organic" foods by issuing rules that will define what "organic" means on a food label.
Until now, organic certifications have been issued by dozens of state and private agencies, with slightly differing standards, creating confusion in the minds of consumers and sometimes within the industry itself.
The rules will establish a national standard on how crops and animals can be raised if they are to be certified organic: crops must be grown without chemical or biological interference, without genetic modifications, on land that is free of contaminants. For animal products, it means animals raised for food must be treated in a humane manner, not confined, not genetically altered, and not given hormones or antibiotics that might show up in meat or dairy products.
The point is not to imply that following organic principles makes food better, but to standardize the rules for this type of farming.
Organic proponents hope the new rules will stimulate demand for organic foods - an industry that already tops $6 billion a year - by making it easier for both giants like General Mills and tiny mom-and-pop food stands to expand their markets.
In addition, business and government groups hope the new regulations will set an international standard for organic products and help the U.S. compete in the international market.
It's a prospect some farmers are eagerly awaiting. "The national standards will be great," says David Shaw, who, with his family, owns a 5-acre farm near Columbia that has been certified organic by the state of Maryland for four years. "They will level the playing field, and put some meaning into the term 'organic.' They'll clarify in people's minds what organic is."
It's too soon to promise that consumers, who've demonstrated their faith in organic products by paying premium prices for them, will see organic-only supermarkets and lower prices. But at the least, they will have labels they can depend on when shopping for food.
"The important thing for consumers is consistency," says Bob Gray, Washington representative for the Organic Trade Organization, based in Greenfield, Mass., which represents farmers, trade groups, retailers, and marketers. "Right now we have all these different labels making different claims about what's organic and what's not."
Consumers might wonder, for instance, if a product is certified by a trade group, whether that group's standards are higher or lower than state standards. If they've never heard of a certifying group, they might wonder what, exactly is being certified. Organic producers who wanted to sell their broccoli or apples outside their own community might have to meet several sets of standards for the same product.
After the rules are finalized, he says, "consumers will have some certainty that the farm has been certified, and that standards are the same all over the country. There's a certain comfort level in having that label."
Coming up with a set federal regulations has taken 10 years because at first, the government didn't seem to be in the same book, much less on the same page, as the industry. The USDA's first attempt to create an organic standard in 1997 brought a firestorm of protest from more than 275,000 individuals and organizations outraged that the government considered irradiation of food, biologically altered organisms, and fertilization with municipal sludge acceptable organic practices.
Earlier this year, the USDA issued a revised set of rules that Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman promised were "fundamentally different" from the first set.
A number of issues remain to be settled. Among the most significant are who will do the certification fieldwork, whether states and private agencies can maintain higher standards than the government's, and who will shoulder the burden of paying for certification.
The final regulations are scheduled to be issued in January, although some industry watchers say they could be out as early as next month.
Maryland has had a program to certify organic produce for a decade and will certify meats after the first of the year. Valerie Frances, manager of Maryland's Organic Certification Program, says that with few exceptions, the differences between Maryland's standards and those proposed by USDA involve "very specific references" - for instance, to the names of chemicals, or to details of new technology.
Probably the biggest difference, Frances says, is that Maryland's standards don't include any prohibition on genetically altered foods. But Maryland is about to implement a new rule that will forbid certification to any product that contains genes added to enhance a particular characteristic, such as tomatoes altered to inhibit spoilage.
Frances notes that, to its proponents, organic practices are more than a set of definitions - they are a lifestyle and a mission.
"Organic farmers try to grow and produce food more sustainably, with less environmental impact, and more in alignment with nature, so the food you eat can be traced all the way back to the farm" that produced it, she says.
Shaw hopes the national standards will make it easier to expand his business from what was once a farm-stand operation into a self-supporting producer of organic fruits and vegetables and edible and ornamental flowers. "I'm hoping this isn't a trend, but the way of the future," he says.
Shaw's farm is typical of most of today's organic operations: small farms with mixed agriculture. They're what Cathy Greene, an agricultural economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service, calls "specialty farming," for local markets or local restaurants.
Greene, who has been tracking organic farming, says that between 1992 and 1997, the amount of acreage certified to follow organic practices - both cropland and pasture and rangeland - grew to more than 1.3 million from about 935,500.
Meanwhile, the sale of organic products has grown annually by 10 to 12 percent, or even, by some estimates, as much as 20 percent. Although organics are still a small part of all groceries sales, they account for billions of dollars.
The lucrative market, with its enormous potential, is attracting "virtually all the major food companies," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, which fosters growth of organic farming through grants and policy research. Players include General Mills, with its Sunrise cereal, and Gerber, with its Tender Harvest baby food.
While most people in the industry welcome the new federal rules as a means to expand the market, there are concerns over whether the big companies will play fair.
There is also concern over whether the rules will answer the organic industry's concerns. The USDA's early misfire has left some organic advocates such as Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, suspicious. His organization of consumer groups is prepared to take action in federal court, or to come up with its own label, if the final federal rules fall short of expectations, he says.
Larger manufacturers are also concerned about ramifications of the regulations. For one thing, they worry that that the organic labels will make consumers think such products are "better" than similar uncertified items.
"We support the uniformity goal," says Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group in Washington. "But [the label] shouldn't mislead customers about what they're getting."
USDA officials remain optimistic that their Herculean effort will be accepted. "On balance," says Keith Jones, manager of USDA's National Organic Program, "everyone has been very supportive of the [revised] rules, and what we proposed. Most of the concerns have been about making sure the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed. It's not perfect, but it's hard to make any legislation this comprehensive perfect. We see this as an evolutionary process."
What is and isn't organic
New federal standards are intended to eliminate confusion over what is and isn't organic. Although the final rules have yet to be issued, here are some of the criteria that are generally agreed on:
What is organic:
For produce: Crops that are raised without chemical intervention in soil that has been free of previously existing chemical or biological contaminants (pesticide residue or seeds from non-organic crops) for a specified period of time (usually three years).
For animal products: Animals must be raised under humane conditions and fed with products that meet organic standards.
What isn't organic:
For crops: application of chemical fertilizer, municipal sludge, or pesticides; cross-pollination from non-organic crops; genetic modification to enhance a certain trait, such as a durability gene added to tomatoes.
For animals: confinement to pens or non-pasture enclosures; application of hormones or antibiotics; feeding rendered animal products as protein; genetic engineering to enhance any traits.
Products should not be treated with irradiation as an anti-bacterial agent or to retard spoilage.