A U.S. District Court in Portland, Maine, ruled June 9 that current organic standards will remain in place until sometime next year. And the court told the U.S. Department of Agriculture that products currently carrying the USDA organic seal could be sold until June 2007. In the meantime, USDA must work to develop new organic standards that comply with the rulings issued as a result of Harvey v. Veneman, the January landmark case that reinterpreted several tenets of organics and sent chills down the spine of the organics industry as it faced its possible undoing.
The court said any new rules must be published by early June 2006 and enforceable by June 9, 2007. ?The biggest challenge right now is to see this situation for what it is—a typical scenario where a relatively new statute needs minor adjustment,? said William J. Friedman, the attorney who argued the Harvey case on behalf of the Organic Trade Association.
On Jan. 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that products carrying any of dozens of synthetic ingredients previously permitted would no longer be allowed in certified organic products. Instead, products that continue to use these ingredients, like baking soda and vitamins, would be eligible to carry only the ?made with organic ingredients? label. The court also said dairy herds transitioning to organic must eat 100 percent organic feed for 12 months prior to the sale of dairy products. Previously, regulations permitted 80 percent organic feed for the first nine months of transition.
Some industry observers believe more stringent rules will discourage producers from going organic. Others think a strengthened organic rule will resonate more with consumers.
?There will be no change in how synthetic ingredients are approved or permitted under the [National Organic Program], and there will be no change in the requirement that organic products that bear the USDA seal contain at least 95 percent organic content,? Friedman said. The ruling will, he allowed, create some confusion in the marketplace, as consumers struggle to understand that the products they once bought with a seal of approval of sorts now carry a lesser label even though the products would be unchanged. ?Obviously, markets don?t grow when there is confusion, and it?s better for everyone if Congress quickly eliminates any confusion.?
More challenging, Friedman said, will be applying the Harvey ruling as it pertains to organic dairy operations. ?There is no doubt that the court decision will make it more costly for dairy farmers to switch. The court clearly said that Congress will have to determine how to solve this problem.?
Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, thinks the industry needs to be more transparent in its dialogue surrounding organic labeling issues. ?Interests are losing touch with the public?s perception on this,? he said, noting that the industry ?didn?t do a good job explaining why 33 synthetic ingredients were permitted? in products carrying the organic label. Nonetheless, OFRF opposes ?opening the organic food act,? he said. ?Organic remains the only legal alternative to the industrial status quo.?
Friedman agrees on principle, though he doubts Congress will attempt to overhaul the NOP. ?Although there are bigger fish to fry in Washington, we believe Congress will see the wisdom of protecting the existing organic program because it has worked so well for farmers. Everyone I talk to on the Hill wants to see organic farmers succeed and organic food reach a mainstream audience.?
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 7