Countdown To USDA Organic

In October of 2002 consumers will begin to see the USDA Organic logo on products in stores and farm stands. This label, over ten years in the making, has been created to offer consumers some assurance that the product meets a consistent USDA standard.

This is not to say that all of USDA's work on the Rule is done, or that it will ever be 100% complete. It is, instead, a work in progress that will need the on-going attention of all persons concerned with organic food. It is a unique piece of regulation which covers the many facets of agriculture and food processing and will offer an option for folks who wish to support organic agriculture. The upcoming October meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will deal with several of the remaining aspects of the National Organic Rule and may finalize some of NOSB's recommendations to USDA regarding unfinished language.

Retailers will undoubtedly find themselves answering lots of questions on what the new USDA logo means. We can only hope that the answers will do justice to the scores of people who have worked so long for a credible label.

One of the most hotly-debated issues left is livestock standards. Whereas the Organic Foods Production Act goes into some detail on crop production and processing, the Rule's livestock language leaves quite a bit of wiggle room. Because of this, we see a variety of "organic" livestock production methods currently being used and a vocal group of stakeholders providing input at meetings. This fall we will surely hear more on pasture requirements, and NOSB will resurrect the discussion of synthetic amino acids (methionine) in animal feed. It is disheartening for consumers to hear any discussion of "organic" animals not being provided pasture and fresh feed or being provided with synthetic nutrients, though one can safely bet that few consumers will be attending the meeting.

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of the amino acids issue, since their use in and outside of organics currently is not limited to livestock. At this time, some certifiers allow glutamic acid for use in crop production as well. (Can anybody say MSG?) If the National Organic Standards Board opens the door to one amino acid, will the rest be soon to follow? Will consumers continue to support "organics" if the standards fail to meet their expectations?

Even the labeling language already written in the Rule offers some confusion. There will be several categories of organic, so people will need help from their retailers in knowing one from another. After October of 2002 there will be some new labels to consider:

The USDA logo may be used only on the first two of the following categories:

  • "100% Organic" -- products with this label must be entirely organic; whole, raw, or processed product;
  • "Organic" -- products with this label must be 95% or more organic ingredients;
  • "Made with Organic" -- this may be used on products containing 70 to 95% organic ingredients (the USDA logo will be prohibited for use with this label; however the certifying agent's seal may be used to describe the ingredients);
  • "Made with Organic Ingredients" -- "Organic" may also be used to describe an ingredient; however the USDA logo and the certifying agent's seal will be prohibited on products containing less than 70% organic ingredients.

Recent bad press has probably gotten to many consumers of organic products by now. Retailers should expect a number of questions from their customers. These are the most common FAQs that come our way:

Q: Is raw manure used on organic food?

A: No. Raw manure is sometimes applied to land but its use is regulated. Growers must wait long enough after applying raw manure to prevent any diseases from getting on or in the plant. "Composted" manure must meet EPA guidelines in order to be used in organic production. Manure is used as a fertilizer by many farmers. Organic production standards strictly regulate its use.

Q: What is the difference between organic and conventional food?

A: First of all, every regulation that applies to food and feed production also applies to organics. In addition to those regulations, organic food must be produced and handled in accordance with organic certification standards. These standards include:

  • 3 years of documented abstinence from the use of prohibited materials (including synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, and sewage sludge);
  • an annual on-site inspection by a trained organic inspector
  • a written plan on all aspects of the operation, including prevention of contamination by prohibited materials and commingling with conventional products;
  • the use of untreated seeds, organic animal feed, an ongoing soil-building program; and
  • third-party certification by an accredited certifying agent.

Q: What about organic livestock?

A: Organic livestock must be raised under humane conditions, fed organic feed, and treated with natural medications. In the case of an animal becoming ill and natural treatments failing, the animal is given the necessary treatment and sold to a conventional market. There are many unresolved issues regarding organic livestock standards. People should contact USDA with input on how organic livestock is raised and handled.

Q: Do different organic labels all mean the same thing? How do I find out more about them?

A: Until October of 2002, each certifier may have a slightly different standard -- though most are extremely similar. Then all certifiers who wish to operate in the U.S. will have to conform to the USDA standard. Meanwhile, if you have questions, contact the certification agency mentioned on the label and inquire. Your state Department of Agriculture may also be helpful; several states either certify or have standards of their own.

As 2002 draws closer, it is important to stay informed. In the next year we will see the USDA livestock standards adopted; discussion,with possibly heated debate; of synthetics and their placement on the National List; and the beginning drafts of issues not yet covered in the Rule: aquaculture, greenhouse production, mushrooms, retail standards, hydroponics, and more. I hope to see some of you at the October meeting!

Information and updates on the USDA Organic Program can be viewed at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop

See other articles from this issue: #096 September - October - 2001