OTA Warns USDA Process Sets Dangerous Precedent

GREENFIELD, Mass., May 21, 2004 -- The process used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in developing several new policies concerning the nation's organic program sets a dangerous precedent and indicates disregard for the needs of organic farmers, processors and, ultimately, consumers who will be most affected by the agency's arbitrary changes in the nation's organic regulations.

In a letter to USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the business group representing the organic industry in North America, has requested Veneman's review of the recent actions of USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) and her assurance that changes will be made to bolster industry confidence in NOP's work.

NOP staff developed the new policies, listed on the NOP web site as guidance documents and a directive, that are, in effect, major rule changes. Neither the public, including those who make or buy organic products, nor the National Organic Standards Board, the Secretary's advisory body, were consulted about these policy changes.

"Allowing NOP to create and implement new directives 'at will' without open dialogue with stakeholders creates confusion for businesses and consumers alike," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of OTA. "For farmers and processors, the changes are akin to traveling a familiar route to work only to find different speed limits, detours and dead-end streets in place daily. OTA is asking that USDA use appropriate processes, including public comment on proposed changes to established policy, especially when these changes would amount to changes in the regulation itself."

For example, companies invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing certified organic personal care products, organic pet foods and organic supplements on the basis of a 2002 policy that recent policy pronouncements have reversed. As a result, these companies have lost the value of their investments, and these product options have been taken away from processors and consumers alike.

Potential results from other pronouncements are equally troubling. One directive requires organic certifiers to certify farms even if the farm uses pesticides with unknown ingredients, which may include materials of toxicological concern. Another guidance statement allows organic dairy cows to be treated with antibiotics and their milk to be sold as organic. A third policy allows artificial preservatives in feed supplements. OTA believes that these policies are contrary to the nation's standards for organic production, which were developed with extensive public comment.

OTA is calling for these policies to be rescinded and for the true public- private partnership envisioned in the Organic Foods Production Act to be restored.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the business association representing the organic agriculture industry in North America. Its over 1,400 members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others.

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