USDA must raise

For the past decade, organic farmers pressed the U.S. Department of Agriculture into setting national standards to define organic products and practices. Sales in the organic food industry are expected to double this year to $7 billion. An organic label would guarantee that no chemical pesticides, fertilizers, steroids or antibiotics are used. The rules, however, vary across the country and are enforced differently by state and regional agencies. Last December, the USDA finally proposed federal standards to end the confusion. Instead, the public rightly reacted by criticizing the USDA for allowing the use of irradiation and genetic engineering in organic production. When setting new standards, the USDA must continue to meet the interests of consumers.
Fortunately, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman responded by excluding irradiated and genetically-altered products from the definition of organic earlier this month. He argues that the two practices are safe, but should be prohibited because they fail to meet current standards and customer expectations. Large food companies and agribusiness groups disagree with the USDA’s action. Kelly Johnson, vice president of the National Food Processors Association, said the USDA caved into public pressure when it decided to exclude such processes. To date, there is no conclusive evidence that killing bacteria through irradiation or using genetically modified ingredients are dangerous.
But organic farmers counterargue that since the use of X-rays to kill bacteria alters cells and molecules in the food, there are unknown long-term side effects. As a result, food produced by irradiation has never been defined as organic. Genetic manipulation also poses some unknown health risks. For instance, pig genes can be injected into the genetic code of a tomato to enhance flavor and shelf life, but such a process crosses species lines. This changes the product’s substance. Monsanto Corp., a top-ranking biotechnology firm, wants the USDA to stall any decision about genetic engineering for three years.
Despite changes to proposed standards on organic foods, the USDA still has a long way to get up to par. Katherine DiMatteo, head of the Organic Trade Association, said the proposed federal rules are below existing standards. No organic farmer today is allowed to use irradiation, genetic manipulation or other synthetic methods. And as public comments received by the USDA clearly showed, consumers expect that such methods will not be used in organic production.
Rarely do grass roots campaigns shape federal standards to the extent that it did in this case. And when the USDA drafts a second proposal by the end of this year, public opinion will be considered. Despite the high cost of organic foods, almost 50 percent of Americans are willing to buy them, partly because they are perceived to be healthier. In the interest of public health, it is better to exercise caution in standardizing organic foods. The USDA has acted in a responsible manner by banning the use of irradiation and bioengineering from organic production. This is what consumers will expect and should get when they look for the USDA certified organic label.