WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The organic-food industry has claimed a victory in its quest to have a national organics labeling standard: the U.S. Department of Agriculture won't allow food that's been irradiated, genetically engineered or grown in sewage-fertilized soil to be called "organic."
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman's decision to nix the three processes from the pending organics standard came after receiving a barrage of protest from the organics industry. Its criticism comprised the bulk of the 200,000 comments received regarding the agency's initial proposal for a standard.
The comment period ended last month and a final proposal is expected later this year.
"Biotechnology, irradiation and biosolids are safe and have important roles to play in agriculture, but they neither fit current organic practices nor meet current consumer expectations about organics, as the comments made clear," Glickman said. "These products and practices will not be included in our revised proposal and food produced with these products and practices will not be allowed to bear the organic label."
Glickman said he wants to accede to organic-farming and -retailing interests in developing a standard to govern the growing, processing, labeling, importing and certifying of organically grown food.
"If organic farmers and consumers reject our national standards, we have failed," Glickman said. "Our task is to stimulate the growth of organic agriculture, ensure that consumers have confidence in the products that bear the organic label and develop export markets for this growing industry."
Following a natural-is-best approach -- and capturing the attention of consumers worried about pesticides and the health effects of food -- the organics industry last year posted sales of $4 billion, which are expected to increase at a rate of more than 24% annually, according to the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass. Association officials applauded Glickman's announcement.
"We're elated the USDA saw the light and recognized that the only acceptable federal standard for organic must meet or exceed current industry standards," said Katherine DiMatteo, OTA executive director.
The organics industry asked Congress to require the USDA to develop an organics standard, which it did in 1990. A national standard is intended to replace a patchwork of state and private certification programs and therefore bring consistency to the definition -- and labeling -- of organic products.
Many national food companies had lobbied the USDA to at least include biotechnology in an organics standard. Bio-engineered foods are now very common, with genes in plants and animals being altered to improve nutrition and increase resistance to pests. They are concerned that by excluding biotech, it might raise questions in consumers' minds that there's something wrong with such products.
Likewise, proponents of irradiation -- a process being increasingly viewed as a future tool for killing harmful bacteria on meat and produce -- also raised concerns about the process being excluded from an organics standard.
"What we want to make sure is the final organic rule should not diminish consumer confidence, nor lend a platform for people to attack irradiation, biotechnology or biosolids. Biotechnology and irradiation, in particular, are potentially important technologies for the produce industry," said John Aguirre, vice president for government affairs at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Arlington, Va.
Meanwhile, the organics industry's concerns over the proposed standards haven't completely been assuaged. It has also taken issue with several points in the USDA's proposed standard, such as the levels of pesticides permitted on produce and livestock standards that it considers too weak.