Saturday, May 22, 2004

What happened to truth in labelling?

Organic may no longer be truly organic, thanks to the USDA. We have more info about the changes to the organic standards in April from the San Franciscon Chronicle

According to the USDA, these changes were hardly anything to get upset about.:
    Barbara Robinson, the USDA deputy administrator in charge of the organic program, defended the moves as merely interpretations of the standards, not new regulations. Among the 90-plus USDA-accredited organic certifiers, some were interpreting the standards one way, some another, she said. For example, some were allowing dairy farmers to use antibiotics in certain circumstances, and some weren't.

    "We want it to be consistent," she said in an interview. In an earlier statement, she put it this way: "The statements simply say what is enforceable under the existing regulation and statute and what is not. There is nothing new, just an attempt to be clear about what is covered."

    The board wasn't involved because the guidances didn't set new standards, she said. Decisions needed to be made, and Robinson said she has only six staff members and $1.5 million, out of the USDA's $70 billion budget, to run the entire organic program.

    If people don't agree with the staff, she added, "the fix is to petition the department to change the regulation. That can be done."
Other people disagree with her and say these are huge changes to the law, done at the last minute.
    The National Organic Standards Board was told of the changes just the day before they were announced and responded with a letter expressing its strong concerns.

    "The board was totally caught by surprise,'' said vice chair James Riddle, who has written to demand that the directives be withdrawn. "They certainly weaken the regulations."

    The new pesticide rule allows the use of some pesticides that contain unidentified inert ingredients if a "reasonable effort" has been made to identify them. Before, the ingredients had to be approved before use.

    The livestock rule allows organic beef cattle and poultry sold for their meat to eat non-organic fishmeal, even if it contains a synthetic preservative or toxins. The standards require organic feed, but fishmeal is allowed as a feed supplement.

    A major change was defining of the scope of organic standards to say seafood, pet food and personal care products simply aren't covered. Previously, the program said they were, though standards for them had not yet been written. Businesses have been built around the promise that if they followed organic principles, they eventually could be certified.
Points of contention:
    Pesticides: Now, some pesticides can be used even if they contain unknown inert ingredients if a "reasonable effort" has been made to identify them. Before, the ingredients had to be approved before use.

    Livestock feed: Now, organic cattle and poultry sold for their meat can eat non-organic fishmeal, even if it contains a synthetic preservative or toxins. Before, only organic feed was allowed. The fishmeal is allowed in any quantity as a "feed supplement."

    Antibiotics in dairy cows: Now, calves and cows can be treated with antibiotics or any other necessary drug, if other means of helping them have failed, but a year must pass before their milk is sold as organic. Before, most dairies interpreted the rule to mean that a cow treated with antibiotics had to be removed from the herd forever (they were sold to conventional dairies), but some certifiers allowed drug use with a 12-month hold on the milk.

    Scope of organic standards: Now, any seafood, pet food and body care products can be called organic without meeting any standards other than their own. That's why the USDA hasn't objected to things like "organic" salmon in fish markets. Before, the three groups were included under the organic law although specific standards hadn't been written to cover them; some won organic certification by following the rules for livestock and crops.
Well, let's petition the USDA and damn their interpretations of consistency.

Send email letters via: Consumers Union and Organic Consumers Association