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An Organic Chicken in Every Pot. Or Not.

By Karen Anderson

(Tuesday, March 11, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Organic consumers everywhere were understandably outraged when they heard that organic chicken might not always be what they’ve come to expect. Prodded by a Georgia representative with a large poultry producer in his district, Congress has declared that you can call almost anything organic if the real thing costs too much. Buried in the Omnibus Appropriations Act--passed in a rush late in February after months of foot dragging-- is a provision that would keep the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) from enforcing the requirement that organic livestock be fed organic feed, at least anytime organic feed costs twice as much as the conventional stuff.

Despite the fact that thousands of farmers have already proven organic production can be profitable under existing regulations, some of the big boys found the rules too tough. It certainly isn’t what they’re used to. So they resorted to the time-honored tactic of late-night politicking to undo more than 10 years of effort to develop a meaningful national organic program.

Now that the light of day illuminates the damage, the fur is flying. Remember, organic consumers sent in more than 275,000 letters to USDA when the first organic regulations were published. They are tuned in, they read labels, and they pay attention. They are certainly paying attention now.

When it comes to organic meat, these consumers expect the animals will be raised without antibiotics, given access to the outdoors, and fed 100 percent organic feed. That’s what the organic label means, because that’s what the USDA organic regulations require. Organic consumers everywhere have been telling their representatives not to mess with the real thing to satisfy special interests who don’t understand or care what it’s all about.

Even USDA Secretary Veneman has gotten into the act, expressing concern about the potential weakening of the program, and supporting bipartisan efforts in Congress to see that the current standards are enforced. Her position at least partially allays fears that USDA wouldn’t run a meaningful program. That’s encouraging news for the 40 percent of consumers who purchase organic products.

It is also encouraging that sixty senators and nearly fifty representatives have signed on to new proposals that would repeal the offending budget language.

But it’s still a shame that something that works so well—for consumers, for farmers, for the environment—can be so easily derailed by a few mischief-makers playing a political game. They got caught this time, but it probably won’t be the last attempt to weaken federal rules. But it may be the last time they mess with the organic community.

Karen Anderson is Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ) http://www.nofanj.org, and an active partner in the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture http://www.sustainableagriculture.net.