GREENFIELD, Mass. -- In a continuing debate that will define the future of the organic food industry, the Organic Trade Association here cited a list of what it considers threats to the industry's integrity contained in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed rule on organics.
The proposed rule, released last December and currently undergoing a comment period through the middle of next month, was intended to fulfill what was called for in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, by establishing organic handling and production practices and outlining certification requirements.
In a statement released in late January and in interviews with SN, OTA representatives expressed "grave concern that the USDA, by not following the recommendations of the 14-member National Organic Standards Board, has placed the term 'organic' at risk of losing its high-integrity meaning."
The main areas of concern cited by the OTA include the risk of lowering standards that are currently accepted by members of the industry; the use of genetically engineered organisms, sludge and irradiation on organic products; and the likelihood of abuses arising from loopholes in the proposal's imprecise wording.
"They need to tighten up these laws. It makes it appear that it would be easy to do what you want to do and report it later," said Katherine DiMatteo, the OTA's executive director, in an interview with SN.
In the OTA's statement, DiMatteo said, "We strongly believe that the proposed rule is not compatible or consistent with current organic practices" and that "the current draft of the regulations lowers the standard for organic and is unacceptable as written.
"We demand that sufficient changes get made until we find it acceptable," she said. If the OTA's objections to the rule were not addressed in the final draft, it "would force the OTA and other organizations to take a serious look at the validity of these federal regulations."
She added, however, that the OTA expects its comments "will be taken into consideration, changes will be made and that the final rule will reflect that."
Michael Hankin, a senior marketing specialist at the National Organic Program, Washington, which is part of the USDA, said the opinions of the organic industry and others are being looked at during the proposal's comment period.
Hankin stressed that the rule in its current form is a proposal that can be added to and reformed according to the feedback the USDA receives. "When all the comments are in, we will look at them and make the final changes."
He noted that the NOP had already been hearing murmurs of discontent about the use of irradiation and sludge from a variety of factions. "The proposed rule doesn't allow for use of genetic engineering, irradiation or sludge. It just asks for comment [on their use]," Hankin said.
One of the OTA's main areas of concern is that what it called the USDA's reductionist approach to organic food could compromise the quality of the products.
The OTA's DiMatteo questioned the need for processes like genetic engineering and irradiation when the organic industry was already producing high-quality products without them. "Why make standards lower than they currently are?"
The OTA also strongly objects to allowing irradiation into the organics industry, stating that it "is a synthetic process that has never been allowed in organic production. The long-term effects of irradiation are still unknown and it is not a panacea to food-safety concerns."
The OTA's DiMatteo noted that the proposed inclusion of irradiation and other such processes was a far cry from the 1990 Act. "Irradiation, genetic engineering and the use of synthetics, according to the 1990 [Act], are not allowed unless they are on the NOSB list and the NOSB didn't recommend them," she said.
The OTA further claimed that the proposal has not sufficiently integrated the recommendations of the NOSB, which was called for by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and is made up of farmers, processors, environmentalists, public interest groups, a scientist and a retailer.
The USDA "has ignored the clearly mandated authority the NOSB was given in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990," the OTA said.
Hankin countered that although the USDA did not incorporate all the board's suggestions, it "did rely heavily" on them. He also said that the 1990 Act "focuses more on what's prohibited than what's allowed," whereas the current proposal offers a detailed list of what would be permitted, and that discrepancy may be at the root of the concerns of the organic industry.
Still, Hankin acknowledged that criticism has been strong from the industry and the general public about the inclusion of a consideration of irradiation, genetic engineering and the use of sludge.
"The majority of comments oppose all three," he noted. "In reviewing the comments we have received to date the majority have stated their preference to not allow [them] in organic food."
The USDA has decided to seek comment from a broader segment of the population regarding the three practices, he said.
Breaking new ground, the proposed rule also addresses the criteria that would have to be met for organic livestock, in a section of the proposal the OTA deemed weakly written.
"The livestock section is weak as currently written, and gives too much leeway in the amount of non-organic livestock feed, types of living conditions and use of antibiotics and other animal drugs allowed in organic production," said the OTA statement.
Inadequate specifications on such key issues as how much non-organic feed could be used for livestock were cited as a cause for concern by the OTA.
"We are proposing that up to 20% of [animal] rations could be non-organic," said Hankin. "We don't describe what conditions it could be used under but expect that these conditions would be when organic feed is not available or when there was an emergency."
The proposed rule suggests permitting "if necessary, that livestock under organic management be allowed to receive other than a total feed ration that is organically produced."
" 'If necessary' and 'emergency' are two different things," commented DiMatteo about what she saw as two very different situations in which non-organic feed would be permissible. "The 'if necessary' is not restrictive enough. The 'if necessary' is unenforceable.
"We are talking an emergency situation like a fire, not like you didn't contract ahead of time," said DiMatteo.
Hankin said he believed that the current wording would not lead to abuses. "The information about whether something is available in an organic variety will come from here [the NOP] as well as knowledge of the certifier. I think strict enforcement with the possibility of loss of certification and fines would be a formidable deterrent to violations by producers," he said.
The OTA statement also noted that potential for other abuses of the organic certification system had been created by imprecise wording throughout the entire proposal.
"Loopholes were created when the USDA eliminated the carefully worded restrictions on the use of material common to the current organic standards," said the OTA statement. "These loopholes will allow synthetic materials and ingredients in organic production that have never been allowed before."
One of the ways in which the OTA claimed the proposed rule lowered organic standards was by only taking into account the use of the land and substances applied to it for the past three years before it might be cultivated with organic products.
"Under this scenario, it would be possible for previously contaminated lands, such as Superfund sites, to become certified organic. Current organic standards mandate that the complete history of the land be taken under consideration prior to granting certification," said the OTA.
DiMatteo said that three years was not a timeframe to which the organic industry had ever adhered. "Current industry standards recommend that the whole history be taken into account," she said.
Hankin countered that "it's possible that there are some certifiers that review the whole history of the land, but the 1990 Act says three years."
The goal of reaching a mutually acceptable agreement on future standards for organics is also growing in importance as the industry looks set for further expansion.
Hankin said, "We know that the market in organics has been increasing by 20% without a program and have every reason to believe that it will increase at that rate or greater once the standards are uniform."
He said he expected to see an increase in sales as a result of the proposed organic rule, in great part due to the creation of the new category of organic meat and poultry.
He added that he thought new certifiers would add to the growth and "we believe that once there's a uniform set of standards and more information is available, more farmers will be encouraged to grow organically."
The OTA's DiMatteo said that, depending on the final draft, the rule could stand an equal chance of helping or hurting the organics industry.
"Under the best of situations, with a good rule, we think it will help sales; but a weak rule, I am not so sure," she said. "And if a weak rule gets implemented, you can be sure that consumer, environmental and organic industry groups will not be silent."
She said a worst-case scenario would be that, if the proposed rule stands, some producers would refuse to follow its practices, and the organic industry would become so unregulated that "all of us will have to create another marketing term."