Revised organic label benefits consumers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture finally announced a series of proposed guidelines last Tuesday that further defines what food would earn the label “organic.” By excluding the use of genetically manufactured crops, irradiation and sludge as fertilizer from the production of a “USDA-certified organic” product, the proposed standards have earned widespread consumer support. An attempt to create regulatory guidelines two years ago failed with consumers because they did not prohibit the use of these three techniques in production. The organic community has pursued these simple, more precise standards to effectively regulate what may earn the coveted organic label. Now, thankfully, they are in place.
Without strict regulation imposed by the federal agency, the “organic” label would remain frighteningly ambiguous. Currently, 49 states and many private organizations have differing notions of what can claim the title. For decades, organic farmers have been using standards much higher than what state and federal governments have enforced. However, without a uniform set of federal standards, many producers were able to legally label any food “organic.” Although the USDA did offer an organic-certified seal for foods that met their unclear standards, the agency could do little to enforce them. The stricter regulations are, in fact, a direct response to the 275,000 consumer comments the department received after the 1997 rules were proposed.
Although the guidelines are not as stringent as those of the European Union, American consumers will now know what they are getting when they read “organic” on the package.
The federal agency’s decision illustrates a significant and laudable change in its treatment of the $6 billion organic food industry. For years, it has snubbed organic farmers, who usually work small-or medium-sized farms. Unlike in Europe — especially France — the United States has allowed corporate farms to flourish, often at the expense of much smaller family farms. The United States has even contended vigorously with the EU’s small-farm subsidies, accusing them of violating international law. The organic-foods industry — which the USDA projects will reach $58 billion by 2006 — deserves better protection.
The groups who have opposed limiting the organic label –biotechnology scientists, companies and experts — are swift to remind consumers that organic food has not been scientifically proven to be safer than foods with genetically engineered seeds or other crop-control methods prohibited from earning the organic label. While this might be true, it misses the point entirely. A growing percentage of American consumers simply want to eat foods they know were produced through natural processes.
It does not seem too much to have asked regulators to appease those who enjoy pure foods and environmentally sound farming methods by refining the organic label. Only by enacting demanding rules will the industry be able to properly rebuff undesirable lobbying efforts by biotechnology companies that want a piece of the organic action. Safety aside, organic must mean organic.