USDA sets standards for organic foods and their labels

Dan Haugen

The Department of Agriculture implemented nationwide organic food standards Monday, more than a decade after Congress assigned the task.

“Today, when consumers see the USDA national organic seal on products, they will know that the products labeled organic will be consistent across the country,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

To be certified organic, a food’s production must not involve the use of pesticides, irradiation or genetic engineering. Food featuring the “USDA organic” label must be 95 percent organic. Items containing 70 percent or more organic ingredients may be labeled “made with organic ingredients.”

Organic Consumers Association spokesman Ronnie Cummins said the Department of Agriculture standards are a step in the right direction, but his organization’s Web site still says the standards “represent the lowest common denominator of what traditionally has been certified as organic.”

The association was formed in 1998 to oppose then-proposed Department of Agriculture organic rules that would have allowed the use of irradiation, genetic engineering and sewage sludge fertilizer.

In comparison, Cummins called the Department of Agriculture’s final draft “a victory,” but said he wishes they would have addressed “social justice” aspects of organic production.

“You can essentially produce food with slave labor and still have it certified organic,” he said. He also said farm subsidies are not evenly distributed between conventional and organic farmers.

Along with the new standards, the Department of Agriculture set aside $8 million to help defray certification costs and fund organic food research projects.

Jean Kinsey, director of the University’s Food Industry Center, said, “Organic food sales have been rising by about 20 percent per year, but they still account for less than 2 percent of all food and beverage sales in the United States.”