USDA releases organic food guidelines

Published on February 01, 2001
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USDA OrganicAfter 10 years and more than 300,000 public comments, the USDA in December 2000 released the final ruling establishing national standards for the production and handling of organic foods.

Under the ruling, the USDA's National Organic Program will accredit agents to certify organic producers. To earn certification, producers will have to follow strict organic guidelines—among other rules, they cannot use genetic engineering or irradiation, fertilize with sewage sludge, or treat their animals with growth hormones or antibiotics. On meeting these standards, they can market their animals, animal products or plants as organic and use the word "organic" on their packaging, along with an official USDA seal.

The National Organic Program was developed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The USDA published the first proposed standards in December 1997. After receiving more than 275,000 public comments, the agency published revised guidelines in March 2000, which garnered another 40,000 responses. The agency says many of the public comments were incorporated into the final rule.

The livestock provisions of the ruling, which apply to animals used for meat, milk, eggs and other animal products, are of particular concern to the AVMA. Although the ruling requires that all sick or injured animals be treated, it also disqualifies any animal that has ever been treated with nonorganic approved medications from being sold as organic. In a May letter to the USDA, the AVMA said it is worried this will discourage producers from treating sick animals because of the higher prices commanded for organic products.

In the letter, which combined the recommendations of several of its councils and committees, the AVMA also requested that certifying agents bring veterinarians on their inspections to make sure animals are healthy. This is not required in the final ruling—although organic producers will be required to keep written animal health records, inspectors will not evaluate health as part of the certifying process.

The National Organic Program will be part of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, and according to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, it was devised strictly for marketing purposes.

"The organic label is a marketing tool," Glickman said at the release of the ruling. "It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality."

But the AVMA, along with other organizations, is concerned that consumers may think the USDA's seal means that organic food is healthier and safer. The official AVMA position statement reads, in part: "The AVMA recognized that there is interest in organically produced food stuffs, including livestock products. However, an organic label in no circumstances implies any assurance of increased food safety."

The final rule becomes effective on Feb 19 and will be fully implemented 18 months after its effective date.

Despite its concerns, the AVMA has expressed to the USDA that it would like to be involved in the program and will be available as a resource if needed.