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'Organic' outcry heeded: Feds withdraw changes allowing more pesticides

(Thursday, May 27, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Carol Ness, San Francisco Chronicle:
The Bush administration abruptly reversed itself Wednesday and withdrew four changes in organic food standards that critics had said threatened to undermine public trust in the word "organic."

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced that "we are taking action to rescind" the four changes made to organic food regulations by National Organic Program administrators in April and reported in The Chronicle on Saturday.

Those changes, which the department called clarifications, had expanded the use of antibiotics in organic dairy cows and pesticides in crops, allowed livestock to eat nonorganic fishmeal and deregulated "organic" seafood, cosmetics and pet food.

The reversal was in response to a broad wave of outrage from organic farmers, the $11 billion organic food industry, its advocates and Republican and Democratic supporters in Congress. They objected both to the changes and to the fact that National Organic Program administrators made them in private without consulting their own advisory board or organic producers.

Veneman, at the end of a telephone news conference on food exports in Washington, D.C., said the clarifications were made in "good faith" to resolve questions that had arisen over how to put the 2-year-old organic standards into effect.

In rescinding them, Veneman also ordered the Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the National Organic Program, to "work with the National Organic Standards Board" to resolve the problems that led to the changes in the first place.

She mentioned the "tremendous amount of interest" and "concern" raised about the changes over the last few days.

The controversy over the four rule changes was just the latest of many arguments that have erupted over private decisions by administrators of the organic program to define precisely what farmers, dairies and other organic producers must do to meet the organic standards.

USDA-accredited organic certifiers have applied various interpretations of the standards, leading to conflicts. For example, some have relied on wording in the standards to allow antibiotic use in dairy cows, while others, citing different wording, have forbidden antibiotics.

Supporters of the standards, including U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who wrote the organic food act, say the law requires that the public and the board be included in working out answers to such conflicts, which will continue to arise as more businesses go organic.

While praise for Veneman's action poured out instantly from all corners of the organic food community, some players said program administrators still need to prove they can work with their advisory board and the public.

"Secretary Veneman has taken a gigantic step toward re-establishing the public-private trust that went into developing U.S. national standards in the first place," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, part of a coalition that raised the public alarm over the issue.

At Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy in New Hampshire that opposes the use of antibiotics and other drugs in cows, Vice President Nancy Hirshberg said she was sending a letter of thanks to Veneman.

"We were really stunned," said Hirshberg. "It really doesn't happen often that democracy prevails and voices are heard."

Leahy, whose office had been circulating a letter opposing the changes in the Senate, also lauded Veneman. But he added: "The organic standards and labeling program is still in its infancy, and this is a critical time for its credibility. This program's credibility has been built with full public and stakeholder participation, and we need to keep it that way."

Standards board Vice Chairman James Riddle of Minnesota said the four reversals are good news and he's looking forward to working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a "truly collaborative manner" on "a whole host of issues" awaiting action.

"It's a bigger issue," he said.

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, said, "We can't manage organic rules by uproar."

He added that the USDA needs to make a "true good-faith effort to trust the public's involvement. ... It remains to be seen whether they will do that or not."