National standards for organic foods proposed

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Nearly three years after its first attempt, the USDA this March introduced a revised set of standards intended to clear up consumer confusion surrounding the organic foods industry, one of the fastest growing sectors of American agriculture.

The proposed National Organic Program offers a definition for the term "organic." Organic food is currently certified by various private and state organizations that use their own standards.

"A single national organic standard, backed by consistent and accurate labeling, will greatly reduce consumer confusion," said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "Consumers will know what they are buying, and organic farmers will know what is expected of them."

Estimated retail value of organic food sales for 1999 is approximately $6 billion. The number of organic farmers stands around 12,200 and has been increasing at about 12 percent per year.

The Clinton administration has proposed $5 million in the fiscal 2001 budget to promote organic agriculture. The funds would go toward conducting research on improved organic production and processing methods, evaluating economic benefits to farmers, and developing new organic markets.

Appearing in the March 12 Federal Register, the 147-page proposal details the methods, practices, and substances that can be used in producing and handling organic crops and livestock (but not aquaculture), as well as processed products. It establishes labeling criteria and rules so consumers know what they are buying when they purchase organic food.

Genetic engineering, sewage sludge, and irradiation would be prohibited in the production of organic food products. Antibiotics would also be forbidden in organic livestock production, and pure organic feed would have to be used.

Included in the proposal is an accreditation program for state officials and private persons to certify compliance with the organic standards. The revised proposal resulted from analysis of an unprecedented 275,603 comments received in response to the USDA's initial, December 1997 proposal.

The AVMA in 1992 stated its concern that animal well-being not be sacrificed through the avoidance of medical treatment to preserve organic status.

In their comments about the initial proposal, the Association and several others said the prohibition on accepted veterinary medical preventive health care procedures could result in the organic livestock being raised in less humane fashion.

Although the revised standards prohibit the use of antibiotics on any animal to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic, the standards require that sick or injured animals be treated with appropriate medicine, regardless of whether the organic status is lost as a result.

These and other issues raised by the AVMA are addressed in the National Organic Program, which the Association is currently evaluating. The deadline for comments is June 12.

Send comments by June 12 to: Keith Jones, Program Manager, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-TMP-NOP, Room 2945-So, Ag Stop 0275, PO Box 96456, Washington, DC 20090-6456. Fax to (703) 365-0760 or file via: Comments should be identified with docket number TMD-00-02-PR.