WASHINGTON -- As organics gain in popularity, food companies increasingly view the market as a potentially lucrative niche. The growing interest will require advocates for the industry to be prepared to fight off challenges to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic standards, a group of experts said recently.
Safeguarding the standards is critical, since any relaxing of the rules could ultimately lead to a loss of consumer confidence in the organic seal, they said.
"If we allow standards to erode and we lose our customer base, then we really have lost our market," said Michael Sligh, agricultural policy director for Rural Advancement Foundation International, Pittsboro, N.C.
Although independent certifiers like Oregon Tilth and California Certified Organic Farmers have been offering farmers their organic stamp of approval for decades, the fight for USDA certification and labeling has been a long one for the organics industry. The Organic Foods Production Act was established as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, and the first National Organic Standards Board convened two years later. After a decade spent working to establish organic standards, outlining how those standards must be met, and deciding how different certification agencies could agree on those standards, the organics industry finally had an official USDA seal in October 2002.
During that time, the popularity of organic foods boomed. Fresh categories -- including produce, juices and beverages, breads, grains, dairy and meats -- account for about 80% of organic industry sales in the United States, according to the Organic Trade Association's 2004 Manufacturer's Survey.
Advocates within the industry now argue that some companies wish to weaken the standards set for the USDA label, allowing them to harness its marketing and pricing power without significantly changing their existing production practices.
"There are some companies that want the organic label, but they don't want to do the work," noted David Dreher, legislative analyst of natural resources and agriculture for Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).
"It has been a pleasure to work with people who want strict standards, and we are aware that there have already been two attacks on the integrity of those standards," said Beth Fraser, OTA's executive administrator, referring to two recent guidance documents issued by the National Organic Program. One would have allowed the milk of cows treated with antibiotics to be sold as organic after a 12-month waiting period; another would have allowed the use of the organic seal on wines containing added sulfites. Both documents were later rescinded.
"Growth of the organics industry has presented a lot of challenges in terms of regulation," said Diane Joy Goodman, director of the Bay Area Farmers Association, San Francisco, noting that some acts within the original laws have not even been implemented yet.
The experts agreed that, with the USDA label now in place, the organics industry needs to regroup and present a united front in light of inevitable future changes and challenges to its preferred standards. Goodman added that seeking any type of positive legislative changes without a united front would also open the door to challenges from groups that might not share the industry's best interests.
"They say that making legislation is like making sausage," said Sligh. "It's not pretty when you're grinding it out, but you hope the end result is good. We don't want to be in a fight among ourselves. [Capitol] Hill appreciates broad stakeholder consensus, and it's important we don't forget the big picture when dealing with details."
"This is the time to start thinking about where you go as an organic community," Dreher agreed. "Put together a set of principles, fine. But don't think it's going to happen now. It's not the climate -- we're still thinking about changes to the Organic Act of 1934. We need to be ready to go forward as a community. To make those steps possible, the more you can present a united front, the better."
Dreher suggested that a united industry could better implement incremental changes in its favor and noted that the organics industry needed to expand its coalition on Capitol Hill. For example, he said a new farm bill is slated for 2007, and "any type of specialty crop or organic crop to be included would be a victory."
Although everyone at the time seemed to agree that a Kerry administration may have been more amenable to these goals, when contacted after the Nov. 2 election, Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the OTA, emphasized the non-partisan nature of the issue.
"We believe that the work we have to do during this administration is about the same as it has been," DiMatteo said. "We need to make sure we have a balanced representation of Democrats and Republicans in the [House Organic] Caucus and the informal Senate working group, and that we responsibly participate in discussions regarding appropriations for the National Organic Program, making sure that its funding is increased to keep it running well. There may not be as many changes in terms of personnel [at regulatory agencies], but there's always the opportunity to create new working relationships."