WASHINGTON -- Retailers may begin carrying meat, poultry and egg products labeled "organic," after the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service approved an interim certified labeling program following an eight year standoff with advocates.
Until now, producers of such products were prohibited from labeling them organic, and restricted to terms such as "natural," which most organic producers consider too vague.
Now, processors can label their products "certified organic by," followed by the certifying body, upon seeking approval from the FSIS and meeting certain criteria. The program will remain in effect until the USDA issues final rules for all organic food products.
According to Beth Gaston, USDA spokeswoman, processors can achieve labeling authorization after demonstrating that their products have been certified organic by a third party that confirms the process. The third party must have its own standards that define the term, as well as a system that ensures the standards. Presently, there are 33 private and 11 state organic certification organizations, as well as a number of "small entities" that provide self-certification, she said.
The FSIS has been reluctant to approve interim organic labeling until national standards were set for all food groups, which fell under their proposed National Organic Program, under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. That process is still ongoing.
Meat, poultry and egg processors had objected to the label ban, citing uneven enforcement of the prohibition. Produce growers, for example, have been permitted to label their fruits, vegetables and related products organic, so long as they met standards set forth by certifying agents.
According to Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Organization, Greenfield, Mass., to gain labeling approval, organic meat, poultry and egg producers will have to submit applications and self-designed labels. She said they will also have to submit the certificate from the third party organization specifying that the product has gone through testing and meets USDA specifications.
Also on the drawing board, she said, is the proposal for a universal symbol of certification. She said the symbol could be considered for approval by the USDA next spring. In the interim, producers will have to submit their own labels stating the product was certified by the USDA and third party, she said.
Organic products, as defined by the OTA, are those products coming from farms that have been "inspected to verify that the farms meet rigorous standards which mandate the use of organic feed, prohibit the use of antibiotics, and give animals access to the outdoors, fresh air and sunlight."
The OTA also specifies that the agriculture production methods must meet all federal, state and local health regulations, work in harmony with the environment, build biological diversity, and foster healthy soil and growing conditions. It claims that these guidelines lead to healthier plants and animals better able to resist pests and disease without the use of toxic persistent pesticides, antibiotics and parasiticides or synthetic fertilizers.
Prior to the lift on the ban, Organic Valley, an organic perishables cooperative based in La Farge, Wis., launched a public awareness campaign that urged consumers to write to the USDA in protest of the ban [see Selling What Comes Naturally, SN, September 14, 1998].
Aside from numerous labeling issues, the organic industry still managed about $4.2 billion in overall sales and continued to grow at a rate of 20% to 24% per year, the OTA estimated.