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Congress acts to amend organic foods law amid industry split

April 24, 2008

10 Min Read
Congress acts to amend organic foods law amid industry split

In a move applauded by some members of the organic community and strongly opposed by others, a congressional subcommittee added a rider to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill last week that provides for changes to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

The Organic Trade Association, based in Greenfield, Mass., proposed the language of the amendment, which focuses on standards for synthetic ingredients in organic food processing, on transition guidelines for dairy cows, and on the power of the Secretary of Agriculture to grant emergency exemptions for "commercially unavailable" organic crops.

While a number of organic manufacturers resolutely supported OTA's initiative, the Organic Consumers Association, Consumers Union, The Center for Food Safety, and other advocacy and consumer watchdog groups fought it, generating more than 300,000 messages to Congress from consumers and industry members opposing the rider. The legislation was temporarily delayed to give the organic industry time to reach a compromise, to no avail.

The rider overturns a previous court ruling in favor of Maine organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey, who argued that the OFPA prohibits use of any synthetics. But under federal organic standards written to fulfill the law and implemented in 2002, 38 synthetic ingredients have been approved for use in multi-ingredient organic food processing.

If Harvey's lawsuit sought to bring organic practices in line with the letter of the 1990 law, OTA says it aimed to revise the law to reflect practices currently in use and vital, they say, to continued growth of the organic industry. In a statement to The Natural Foods Merchandiser, OTA said, "No new synthetic substances, including ingredients, may be allowed in organic production without the review and approval of the National Organic Standards Board [a citizen advisory board to the U.S. Department of Agriculture], and no loophole was created by Congress' decision. The process is exactly the way it has always been."

Critics of the amendment say that the new language opens the door to use of many more synthetics, weakens the authority and input of the NOSB, and ignores consumers who want rigorous organic standards.

"I think what has not been adequately factored in is what consumers expect of this label, and what consumers will do when the label doesn't meet their expectations," said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y.

"I think the only consumers who were concerned about it were getting bad information," said Kelly Shea, director of government and industry relations for White Wave Foods, based in Boulder, Colo., a division of Dean Foods that includes Horizon Organic Dairy brand foods. "If you asked them if they want to keep buying the same organic products they've been buying, they'd say yes. There won't be anything different about how we make products."

Though Shea said that her company saw the legislative move as a "very transparent process," Peggy Miars, executive director of Santa Cruz, Calif.-based California Certified Organic Farmers, expressed concerns about methods that some have characterized as secretive: "It appears that this will be better for organic producers, who are our clients; on the other hand, we're not happy with the manner in which the amendment was passed. We don't feel we were able to express our opinion and take a stance on it before the amendment was passed."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who authored the charter for the national organic standards and labeling program and who inserted the temporary language to propel an industry compromise, said, "The Harvey case could have major impacts on the future of the organic industry, both for producers and processors. That is why I added language to the Senate bill instructing USDA to study the implications of the decision and report back to Congress. I believe a deliberative process to achieve consensus within the organic community would have been more appropriate."

Elaine Lipson is New Hope Natural Media's organic program director. Additional reporting by Marty Traynor Spencer.

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