WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Proposed federal labeling standards for organic food continue to stir controversy, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said he may give even more time to debating the issue.
Glickman has already extended by 45 days the deadline to comment on the mammoth proposal, designed to bring uniformity to the meaning of "organic" for produce, fresh meat and processed foods labeled as such. The deadline to file comments is now April 30.
After reworking the proposal based on the feedback, Glickman said it's likely agency officials will then take the unusual step of issuing a second blueprint for comment. He urged critics of the proposed regulation -- who are largely among the organic farming and retail community -- to trust the regulatory process.
"I can't imagine a rule being approved in which the folks who have asked to approve the rule would be offended," said Glickman, speaking to reporters after he delivered the keynote address to the 21st National Food Policy Conference here, sponsored by the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy.
The labeling proposal has rankled the organic-food community on several fronts. It is worried the final regulations will run counter to the industry's strict organics tenets.
Although amounting to just 1% of all food sold in the United States, organics sales last year equaled $3.5 billion, an amount that's expected to increase by almost 30% a year.
"Poorly constructed, it really has the potential to harm the industry," said Kathleen Merrigan, senior analyst at the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, a panelist at the Public Voice conference, discussing the proposed organics standards. "We could not live with the proposal as it stands."
In particular, the organics lobby is pushing to exclude from the standard crops treated with municipal sludge, irradiated to kill pathogens or bio-engineered to be labeled organic.
Although the USDA hasn't proposed food treated that way be allowed to be called "organic," it has nevertheless asked for comments on the issue.
Food processors and traditional farmers and ranchers, who use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics and pursue other non-organic methods, say an organics standard should acknowledge some modern-day food technology. Some examples are bio-engineered crops that are more disease-resistant or manipulated enzymes used to speed cheese clotting.
Although organic farmers follow the principle of "natural is better," they don't entirely eschew synthetic treatments and pesticides. Part of the organics labeling debate is focused on which of these methods should be allowed. For example, synthetic insect pheromones are commonly used to control pests as mating inhibitors. It's virtually impossible to naturally harvest such pheromones in commercial quantities.
Regina Hildwine, director of technical regulatory affairs at the National Food Processors Association here, criticized the organics lobby for wanting to exclude genetically manipulated crops from the standard, among other things.
"There's no science-based reason to exclude them," said Hildwine, also a conference panelist. "The organic standard must yield."
The blueprint for a new organics standard has generated more than 23,000 comments, which USDA officials say is a record number of opinions filed in the agency's regulation-making history.
Allowing comments to be made via the Internet, and then having them posted electronically for public view, is one reason for the high volume. This is the first time the USDA has used the Internet to accept comments, instead of just allowing them to be filed on paper and placed in the USDA's reading room in Washington for perusal.