Ruling Prompts Controversy

Organic Trade Association proposals opposed by consumer organizations

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Democracy and the high price of organic food

Fifteen years ago, members of the House and Senate held a conferee meeting in an attempt to reach agreement on the language that would become the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). Since that time, the progress of the National Organic Program has been closely watched by consumers, organizations, and members of the organic business community. Public interest and response has been record-setting. Businesses once considered unlikely to go organic have been attracted by the rapidly growing market.

Despite such popularity, people often complain about the price of organic food. But organic food is expensive in another way. The added price is the vigilance that has and must be spent on preserving the integrity of the organic label. Today, once again, the organic community struggles with questions about its standards. Once again, the legislative process has been invoked and, as before, the public is rising to the occasion.

Without public participation, we would not have had such expansion in organics, nor would we have the law that created this success story. Organics represents to many one of the last true choices consumers have today concerning the production and handling of the food they eat—a way to “vote with their dollars” for how they want it raised and what they want in it.

When organic items first hit the market, it was pretty much about what farmers planted, harvested, and sold as whole or minimally processed foods like whole grain flour. Today, our grocery shelves are filled with all manner of “organic” products, from frozen dinners to toaster pastries. Organics is recognized as the fastest growing segment of the food industry, and new products enter the market daily.

When OFPA was written, grocers’ shelves of organic food may have looked different. The passion, expertise, and input that went into its creation, however, has lead the U.S. into the creation of a program and markets that have expanded organic product options beyond what many dreamed possible. We wanted organics to grow, and it has. That basket of organic apples that once was found only on the farm or in the local “health food store” now could end up in babyfood to be sent to Japan or in an organic version of the “Pop Tart.” We can call it a “success” and rightfully so. But success, like democracy, has its price. The price of this success will be measured not only by the sustainability of organic farming practices, but also by the sustainability of the market for organic products. It will be the consumer who decides.

In several ways, the organic “Rule” that was implemented in 2001 did not reflect OFPA, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. Arthur Harvey, an organic blueberry farmer from Maine, pointed out errors and, eventually, the courts declared that he and his allies were right. Harvey’s lawsuit resulted in the USDA taking steps to ensure that the Rule be made consistent with the Act. Organic operations have been given two years to implement necessary label or practice changes.

Organics has successfully grown, with great involvement from people who care passionately about what the word represents. Public comment has been record-setting. Many people were involved in the conversations regarding the impact of the Harvey lawsuit, including the USDA and the Organic Trade Association. Many points of view were taken into consideration. The lawsuit and its results are examples of public involvement in creating and guarding the integrity of organic regulations.

Some consider the outcome to be a victory, while others disagree. The court decision was that by mid-2007, “organic” labels will represent:

  • “organic” processed products that are free from synthetic ingredients,
  • “made with” organic products that use as much organic product in them as is commercially available, and
  • “organic” dairy products from animals that have been fed 100 percent organic feed in their organic “conversion” year rather than the 80 percent/20 percent currently allowed for new herds.

Some manufacturers of processed organic foods do not want to change their products or labels. The Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents many such operations, wants things left as they are—for “organic” to mean what they’ve been doing all along. Their answer is to amend the OFPA.

OTA lobbied the Senate to attach an amendment to the 2006 agriculture appropriations bill that would make it legal for certain synthetic substances to continue to be used in organic products that carry the USDA seal. OTA’s proposed amendment cancels out the changes to the regulation resulting from the Arthur Harvey court decision.

If adopted, the OTA amendment would continue the allowance of 38 synthetic substances that are already being used in the production of organic products. The amendment could, in some cases, allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add synthetics to the list without getting input from the public or the National Organic Standards Board.

On Sept. 26, 2005, OTA posted an open letter on its website, claiming that there is misinformation “circulating about the amendments it is supporting in Congress.” They do not feel their amendments weaken the Rule. OTA wants to keep the standards as they are. They feel that unless the organic Rule remains as is, there will be fewer “organic” products available to consumers in the marketplace, “organic” products will be more expensive, and there will less incentive for manufacturing companies to buy organic ingredients, thus reducing markets for organic farmers.

A group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) including Rural Advancement Foundation International, Beyond Pesticides, National Cooperative Grocers Association, and National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, have responded to OTA’s proposed amendment, stating that they “strongly oppose any changes to OPFA, through ‘riders’ on appropriations or other such ‘backdoor’ processes,” and they feel “honor bound to respond and to ensure that this rider does not weaken the existing OFPA, but strengthens it.” This group has responded to OTA’s reasons for the need for an amendment, as briefly summarized in the sidebar on page 9.

Many organizations have responded to OTA’s efforts by alerting their members to contact Congress, telling them not to support any amendments that would weaken OFPA. The Organic Consumers Association and others have generated more than 280,000 letters, e-mails and calls to congressional offices opposing the amendment. The Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, Rural Advancement Foundation International, and many others have also alerted the public to respond.

According to Consumers Union’s (CU) recent research, 46 percent of all consumers buy some organic-labeled food products, and 85 percent of all respondents say they do not expect food labeled as organic to contain artificial ingredients. CU’s Urvashi Rangan maintains, “allowing synthetics leads to fraudulent labeling, plain and simple, and erodes the credibility of the term organic.”

The issues have caused a great split in opinions about what organic is to become. As a result, one day soon, the organic “community” and Congress will be sitting at the table again, just like 15 years ago. Some of the faces at that table will be the same, and so will some of the issues. Organic déjà vu? Not quite. This time, there will be more than one “organic” side. It will not simply be “organic” against “conventional”—and in the end Congress will expect some kind of negotiation.

According to Jay Friedman, charter member of the National Organic Standards Board and attorney representing OTA, “The OTA proposal seeks to fully authorize the existing organic program in light of the concerns expressed by the Court and nothing more. It will not change or alter the way the NOSB reviews materials for inclusion on the National List. The review criteria that are currently in place will remain if Congress adopts the suggested clarification. The reports on the Internet to the contrary are simply false.”

This must be confusing to Congress. The largest organic industry group says amend OFPA, while consumers and consumer organizations say no. Organizations and individuals who once stood together now are at odds. CU’s research indicates that the OTA amendment contradicts consumer expectations. Does the consumer create the organic market, or does the organic market tell the consumer what “organic” means? Should industry dictate changes in law or should the people?

Many feel that OTA and other companies have forced a legislative approach without advice or consent from the broader organic community. OTA has framed the issue and wants us to fear that, without an amendment, there will be a “major disruption to the booming market for organic farm and processed products” and “loss of consumer confidence.” Yet we all know organic consumers are not ignorant.

Division in the organic business community is understandable. The stakes are high. But in the end, it is the consumer who must be represented. Consumers grew this organic market—not corporations. And consumers will ultimately decide what “organic” products they want to buy—based on their preferences in taste, quality, price, and integrity. Those who love a particular brand of organic product are not likely to stop buying it because the label says “made with” instead of “organic,” as long as they know nothing in the product has changed. Companies that feel they will lose consumers need to focus on proactive consumer education and how they support integrity in organics rather than try to find excuses for what the courts have determined to be inconsistent with the Act.

The Arthur Harvey lawsuit has been regarded as a victory for those who want organics to be kept pure and credible. Victories are not won without cost. The price of organic food includes the exercise of this debate and the involvement needed from everyone who cares about clean food. It demands openness, transparency, and public participation. Harvey’s lawsuit was not the first, and it will not be the last.

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Cissy Bowman is an organic certifier and manages Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, a nonprofit organization (317-539-4317 or [email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #121 November - December - 2005