Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organics groups differ over standards

Heated debate over an amendment and a rider to the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Bill has sparked a rift in the organics community.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and passed by the U.S. Senate Sept. 22, is a compromise after an Organic Trade Association rider calling for changes to the National Organic Program was rejected in the Senate. Longtime members of the organics community believe the amendment is designed as a placeholder to allow debate on the OTA rider and NOP changes in a House-Senate agriculture appropriations conference committee. However, if the committee can?t reach a consensus, the amendment will likely go through as part of the agriculture appropriations bill, said agricultural consultant Roger Blobaum.

The amendment calls for the secretary of agriculture to submit a report to Congress to determine whether changes to the National Organic Program ?would adversely affect organic farmers, organic food processors and consumers.?

The report, due before Dec. 20, would also analyze the use of synthetic ingredients in processing and handling organic food, evaluate expedited petitions for commercially unavailable agricultural products because of crop disasters, and consider the use of crops and forage from dairy farms that are in their third year of organic development as feed for cattle that produce organic products.

At issue is how to accommodate the changes mandated by a federal court after the U.S. Department of Agriculture lost a lawsuit filed by Maine organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey. The court ruled that organic regulations must be rewritten before June 2006 to ban 38 synthetic ingredients currently allowable under NOP; require that dairy herds receive organic feed for 12 months prior to the sale of their products, rather than the three months currently required; and stipulate that nonagricultural, nonorganic ingredients no longer be used in organic products.

The new regulations would be enforced beginning June 2007. Products that don?t include the new criteria would have their USDA status reduced from ?organic? to ?made with organic ingredients.?

In a statement, OTA officials said their ag bill rider is designed to ?uphold the NOP standards as we know them. The only change to the rule that OTA?s [rider] would make is to make it more difficult for manufacturers to claim that ingredients are not commercially available as organic by proving it to the USDA. This, in fact, would strengthen the rule.?

However, a group of nongovernmental public interest groups disagrees. Citizens for Health, The Center for Food Safety, the Organic Consumers Association, the National Organic Coalition, the National Cooperative Grocers Association and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture have proposed their own changes to the NOP that would accommodate the Harvey ruling. They have also lobbied Congress against the Leahy amendment and OTA rider. As of mid-October, the OCA reported that more than 250,000 consumers had e-mailed their representatives.

Ana Micka, president of Citizens for Health, says if the OTA rider is passed, the USDA could permanently allow synthetic processing aids and ingredients in organic foods ?without any type of public review for their safety and compatibility with organic production and processing.? Micka also said the amendment would ?leave unresolved whether young dairy cows could be treated with antibiotics and then converted to organic after 12 months,? and ?create a serious new loophole in which organic ingredients could be substituted with nonorganic ingredients without any consumer notice, based upon ?emergency decrees.??

Theresa Marquez, chief marketing executive at Organic Valley Family of Farms, said the OTA and its supporters are ?98 percent in agreement with the nongovernmental organizations. It?s only the 2 percent that?s causing a rift in the organics industry. This is a silly fight.?

Marquez also believes changing the NOP would benefit large organics producers rather than the small companies and farmers the NGOs are fighting for. Finding organic replacements for synthetics is very expensive, she says. ?For companies with multimillion-dollar R&D budgets, they?re going to be able to weather this one out. It will be much harder for the smaller manufacturers and farmers to stay in business, and the conversion of conventional farmland to organic will come to a halt.?

Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 11/p. 1, 12

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