E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Move is on to plug hole in organic standards

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Friday, March 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Legislators and farm leaders met across from the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to stress the importance of passing legislation to repeal a recent provision that would weaken organic food standards.

Overturning this measure allowing livestock producers to label their products "organic" even if they use conventional, non-organic feed is important, a Maryland organic farmer told CropChoice. But how the measure got into the $397 billion spending bill passed last month, he said, is perhaps symptomatic of the climate the Bush administration has created.

Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) reportedly inserted Section 771 into the spending bill at the urging of Fieldale Farms, a corporation of poultry producers in Deal's north Georgia district. Unless extended, the measure will expire at the end of the fiscal year in September.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) is leading the charge in the House to repeal the provision as soon as possible with HR 955. The legislation he introduced on Wednesday so far has the support of 68 representatives. In the Senate, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is sponsoring the bill, which 66 senators support.

While the legislators shepherd the measure through Congress, they're urging the Department of Agriculture, which opposes the weakening the organic standards, to do all that it can to prevent conventional grain from being fed to chickens marketed as organic. Farr's office asked USDA for a list of growers using such feed. So far, it has found no one, said Troy Phillips, senior legislative assistant to Farr. Also, while the provision in the spending bill exempts non-organic feed, it says nothing about rules in the organic standards that prohibit the use of genetically modified grain. That represents another course for USDA to pursue while Farr's legislation proceeds.

Beyond plugging the loophole opened by section 771, more could be done to strengthen the organic standards. One item of importance, said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, is the institution of a peer review panel composed of outside experts to oversee and review USDA's accreditation of organic certifiers. The Center has petitioned for this item, which is mandated in the law establishing the standards, but USDA, citing budget constraints, so far has refused to act, he said. The petition is available at http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/li.html.

Another issue to be looked at in all of organic agriculture is corporate concentration, said Dave Frederickson, president of the National Farmers Union.

In the case of Fieldale Farms, the "big operator seems to be getitng preferential treatment and that's wrong," Frederickson said. "We've assisted in studies that raise the issue of concentration at the processing and retail levels." He cited the work of Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan, available at http://www.foodcircles.missouri.edu/consol.htm.

Rep. Farr's office has also "looked at concentration in organic agriculture and it is becoming a concern to a lot of our smaller growers," said Phillips.

For Maryland organic farmer Eric Rice, what happened with the organic standards is symptomatic of the larger political climate.

The Bush administration has "created a climate of opportunism where you do whatever you want until you get caught," said Rice, who grows fruit and vegetables, and raises free range, grass-fed cattle. "In Georgia, we're seeing part of the fallout of a strategy of firefights and fragmentation."

Related story: Chickenfeed politics: Who pulled a fast one on the organic industry?