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For Immediate Release
May 27, 2004

Media Contact:
Dale Didion
(202) 544-5430

Credibility of U.S. Organic
Certification at Stake
Ag secretary’s move to quell wave of criticism by rescinding controversial rule changes does not go far enough, says letter by organic standards board vice chair

Kutztown, PA --The federal government could have easily avoided this week’s controversy over its organic standards if it had listened to its own advisory board, according to The Rodale Institute and the vice chairman of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

Jim Riddle, who has served on the board since January 2001, today sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman congratulating her for rescinding recent changes to the National Organic Program that he says “would have done irreparable damage to the USDA Certified Organic label.”

Consumers have come to rely on that label to distinguish between organically grown products and those grown with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

But Riddle urged Veneman to go further than simply nullifying those changes by following the intent of the federal Organic Rule that established the USDA Certified Organic label and by healing the fractured relationship between National Organic Program (NOP) administrators and their advisory board.

“The USDA could avoid the further questioning of its ability to administer a strong organic program simply by following its own rules,” the letter states. Riddle goes on to spell out how the NOSB—which is supposed to function as the voice of consumers, farmers, and the entire organic community to the NOP—has been virtually ignored since the rule went into effect.

“People need to have confidence in the USDA Certified Organic label,” commented Anthony Rodale, chairman of The Rodale Institute, pioneers in organic farming research for more than 50 years. “The Secretary’s flip-flop could damage the organic brand and make consumers wonder if the label means anything. It shows that government and business interests should not be allowed to erode the democratic process and reverse the progress we have already made. And it holds organic standards to the high levels that consumers around the world require in order to give us their trust.”

Rodale, who has called for 100,000 federally certified organic farmers in the next decade, continued, “Weakening consumer confidence in the USDA Certified Organic label will keep farmers who want to stop polluting our land and water from converting to organic. And that would be a tragedy for consumers, farmers, the industry, and the American people.”

“We’re relieved they rescinded their rule changes,” Rodale said, “but we’re concerned that those changes were made behind closed doors, outside the scope of the federal Organic Rule, and with questionable motives.”

Riddle’s letter explains, “These changes, while couched as clarifications, ran completely counter to the regulations as written and to the spirit of organics.” The letter is posted on The Rodale Institute’s website, which is read by 80,000 farmers a month and where Riddle serves as organic policy specialist.

Riddle, an organic inspector and industry analyst, who holds the Endowed Chair of Agricultural Systems at the University of Minnesota, is founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) and co-author of the International Organic Inspection Manual issued by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements and the IOIA.

Riddle’s letter goes on to outline shortcomings in the way materials approved for organic production pass muster, and he lays the blame squarely on the NOP for shutting its ears to its own advisory board.

He calls on Secretary Veneman to use funds recently appropriated by Congress to hire an executive director for the NOSB and to seek the advisory board’s input in writing a job description and selecting a suitable candidate. And he urges her to follow the letter of the Organic Rule concerning NOSB review of permitted substances and technical review teams.

The recent changes, which Secretary Veneman withdrew on Wednesday after strong public outcry and critical press coverage, had been defended by her staff since they were put into place in mid-April as “clarifications” to organic certifiers who inspect individual operations on the ground. They included allowing the use of some antibiotics and pesticides in organic production, allowing for certain non-organic feeds, and allowing the term “organic” to be used without oversight on cosmetic, nutritional, and personal care products as well as fish.

“I urge you to take a second necessary step by committing to restore the integrity of the USDA’s organic certification program,” Riddle’s letter to the secretary states. “This will require that the NOP begin to function routinely in good faith in its relationships with the organic farming community through the National Organic Standards Board, as required by law.”

When the USDA first drafted the Organic Rule in 1997, it proposed opening up organic production to sewage sludge, genetic engineering, and irradiation. That version of the rule was met with such a huge public backlash—more than 275,000 letters, emails and telephone calls expressing outrage—that it was brought back to the table, overhauled, and finally adopted in its present form in 2002.

“The Rodale Institute is encouraged that the consumers and the industry have remained vigilant in protecting the integrity of these hard-won standards and that the media placed necessary focus on this critical issue,” commented Rodale. “However, USDA administrators still need to prove they can work with the National Organic Standards Board.”

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