May 18, 2004, Grist
Magazine*: Over the course of 10 days in
mid-April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued
three "guidances" and one directive -- all
legally binding interpretations of law -- that threaten
to seriously dilute the meaning of the word organic
and discredit the department's National Organic Program.
And the changes -- which would allow the use of antibiotics
on organic dairy cows, synthetic pesticides on organic
farms, and more -- were made with zero input from the
public or the National Organic Standards Board, the
advisory group that worked for more than a decade to
help craft the first federal organic standards, put
in place in October 2002.
The USDA insists that the changes are innocuous: "The
directives have not changed anything. They are just
clarifications of what is in the regulations that were
written by the National Organic Standards Board,"
USDA spokesperson Joan Shaffer told Muckraker. "They
just explain what's enforceable. There is no difference
[between the clarifications and the original regulations]
-- it's just another way of explaining it."
But Jim Riddle, vice chair of the NOSB and endowed chair
in agricultural systems at the University of Minnesota,
argues that what the USDA is trying to pass off as a
clarification of regulations is actually a substantial
change: "These are the sorts of changes for which
the department is supposed to do a formal new rulemaking
process, with posting in the federal register, feedback
from our advisory board, and a public-comment period.
And yet there is no such process denoted anywhere."
Organic activists suspect that industry pressure drove
the policy shifts. They point out that the USDA leadership
has long-standing industry sympathies: Agriculture Secretary
Ann Veneman served on the board of directors of a biotech
company, and both her chief of staff and her director
of communications were plucked right out of National
Cattlemen's Beef Association.
"Even though it evolved as a reaction against
large-scale American agribusinesses, the organic food
industry has seen tremendous growth, roughly 20 to 24
percent a year for the past 10 years," said Ronnie
Cummins, founder and national director of the Organic
Consumers Association. "That, not surprisingly,
has brought with it investments from big business and
demands for conventional farming practices more favorable
to mass production."
One practice favored by large agribusiness is the use
of antibiotics on cows, and a guidance [PDF] issued
on April 14 will allow just that on organic dairy farms,
a dramatic reversal of 2002 rules. Under the new guidelines,
sickly dairy cows can be treated not just with antibiotics
but with numerous others drugs and still have their
milk qualify as organic, so long as 12 months pass between
the time the treatments are administered and the time
the milk is sold.
"This new directive makes a mockery of organic
standards," said Richard Wood, a recent member
of the FDA's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee
and executive director of Food Animal Concerns Trust.
"Organic farmers that we have talked to are furious
because they have been very careful to follow the antibiotics
rule. [The rule change] undercuts their ability to make
a living doing things right."
Furthermore, said Wood, the use of antibiotics will
reduce the pressure on organic farmers to provide healthy
accommodations for their livestock. If they know they
can pump their animals up with drugs, they won't have
to worry so much about disease spreading when cows are
penned up in close quarters, or about weaning calves
from their mothers at an unnaturally early age.
"It's hard to deny that this looks awfully like
a political move by USDA to do the bidding of larger
dairy operations that want to produce organic milk by
expanding their herds with cattle that were once on
non-organic farms," Wood said.
Another new guidance [PDF] put out on the same day
would allow cattle farmers to feed their heifers non-organic
fishmeal that could be riddled with synthetic preservatives,
mercury, and PCBs and still sell their beef as organic.
And the following week, on April 23, the USDA took
the particularly egregious step of issuing a legal directive
[PDF] that opens the door for use of some synthetic
pesticides on organic farms.
Previously, organic farmers were only allowed to use
natural, non-toxic pesticides on their crops, which
effectively prohibited use of pesticides with hidden
ingredients (pesticide manufacturers often don't list
certain ingredients, claiming the information is proprietary).
According to the new guidelines, however, organic farmers
and certifiers are only required to make a "reasonable
effort" to find out what is in the pesticides being
applied to crops. "If they can't come up with the
info on toxic inert ingredients that may be in their
pesticides, they're off the hook" said Liana Hoodes,
organic policy coordinator for the National Campaign
for Sustainable Agriculture. "This takes all the
pressure off of pesticide manufacturers to reveal their
ingredients and develop non-toxic products. In fact,
it creates a disincentive."
Last but certainly not least, another guidance [PDF]
released on April 14 narrows the scope of the federal
organic certification program to crops and livestock
and the products derived from them, meaning that national
organic standards will not be developed for fish, nutritional
supplements, pet food, fertilizers, cosmetics, and personal-care
"Consumers beware: This basically allows any opportunistic
company to put fraudulent 'organic' labels on products
outside of the regulated domain, without any liability
concerns," Hoodes told Muckraker.
There have never been federal organic standards for
these product categories -- which is why you cannot
now trust an "organic" label on a bottle of
shampoo or a package of farm-raised salmon -- but the
USDA had previously said it would develop such standards.
In anticipation of that eventuality, many companies
have invested millions of dollars over the past decade
to develop fish farms and factories for non-agricultural
products that adhere to criteria consistent with those
for organic crops and livestock.
"All that effort has just flown out the window,"
Cummins told Muckraker. "It's an outrage for the
30 million consumers who pay a premium for organic products
and expect that they can trust the organic claim."
The USDA rejects activists' interpretation of this
particular guidance: "There's a process to go through
[to develop organic guidelines for non-agricultural
categories] and it hasn't happened [yet]," said
Shaffer. "It could still happen. I'm not clairvoyant."
Despite the USDA's demurrals, activists view the department's
changes as a serious threat to hard-won standards for
organic products. The National Campaign for Sustainable
Agriculture and other groups are investigating possible
industry influence into the USDA's process, and some
environmental groups are preparing to take legal action.
"Secretary Veneman should withdraw these new directives
and follow the appropriate rulemaking procedures,"
said Riddle of the NOSB. "We want them withdrawn
and to do it right."
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