Published on Saturday, March 4, 2000 in the Washington Post
'Organic' Label To Exclude Gene-Altered Grains
by Marc Kaufman
As part of an effort to create the nation's first official definition of "organic," the Clinton administration has decided to propose a ban on genetically engineered grains in any food labeled organic, according to people who have been briefed on the rules.
The guidelines would also ban pesticides on crops labeled organic, bar the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer, prohibit irradiation and tightly restrict the use of antibiotics in farm animals, according to advocates of tough standards who are familiar with the proposal.
The regulations, which are expected to be formally announced next week by the Department of Agriculture, will embrace organic standards on farm subjects ranging from how animals should be treated to what constitutes organic manure, they said.
In addition to trying to satisfy a small but growing minority of American consumers who favor organic foods, the rules could also serve to defuse a contentious trade conflict with Europe. When European governments banned some of the same controversial farming practices that will be prohibited by the proposed organic rules, the United States called them unfair barriers to trade and imposed retaliatory trade sanctions.
A possible way out of the dispute, some officials have said, is to offer Europeans grains free of genetic engineering and beef free of hormones and antibiotics--foods that will become available and encouraged under the new organic rules.
Advocates of a strict definition of "organic" called the new rules a dramatic turnaround from the administration's first proposals two years ago, which resulted in an outpouring of protest from organic farmers and consumers for being too lax.
"Last time, the USDA wasn't even close," said Michael Sligh of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, who attended the USDA briefing last week. "The rule didn't look like an organic program at all, and it became a real international embarrassment."
"This time, from what they have said to us, we think they know what an organic program should be," said Sligh, former chairman of a national organic standards board.
USDA officials declined to comment yesterday on the new regulations other than to say that officials had "finalized a revised proposed rule on organics, and hope to get it out as soon as possible."
After the proposed regulations are formally announced, they will be subject to a 90-day public comment period and could be modified before becoming law, perhaps within six months.
While the advocates who were briefed on the proposal say they have not seen the details of the more than 600 pages of regulations, they said they were assured last week that they would be pleased with the results.
"They told us it was a very strong rule, and that we were going to like it," said one advocate present at the briefing. Another participant said: "We were basically told the agency has heard our complaints, and that people have worked very hard to come up with a new program with very, very high standards."
Michael Phillips, executive director for food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said his group has not been briefed about the new rules but that "we accept as a matter of fact" that genetically modified products will not be allowed in organic food.
Phillips criticized the decision, saying it was not based on science but rather on the fact that so many people had written to the USDA to oppose them. When Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman signaled a year ago that the agency was changing its position on engineered crops in organic food, he pointed to those protests as one reason.
The proposed organic food regulations would implement the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. That bill was passed in an effort to create national standards for organic food--which is now subject to varying state and industry standards--and to encourage the industry's growth.
The Organic Trade Association reported that the industry had $1 billion in sales in 1990 and is projecting $6.6 billion in sales this year. While most organic producers are small family farmers, large corporate producers such as General Mills Inc., Dole Food Co. Inc., H.J. Heinz Co. and Gerber Products Co. recently have been moving into the market.
According to Joe Mendelson, legal director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, USDA officials specifically told the advocates last week that the agency had modeled its new rules on the the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board--a group created by the 1990 law and widely respected among organic farmers.
While the standards will please many organic producers and consumers--who sent a record 270,000 letters to protest the first organic proposal--they do bring with them potential testing difficulties and additional costs.
For instance, a battle is already forming over who will be responsible if genetically modified seeds "contaminate" organic crops. Activists briefed on the subject said they have been assured the new rules will require organic produce to be entirely free of engineered crops. Given the widespread use of engineered crops, they said it sometimes would be difficult for organic farmers to avoid the "background contamination."
The advocates said it would be unfair to penalize organic growers, many of them small farmers, if their neighbors' genetically modified seeds blow into their fields. They said they expect the USDA to address the issue in the organics rules.
But biotechnology companies play down the problem, saying it is the organic farmer who is responsible. Phillips, the industry spokesman, said that if organic farmers are concerned about contamination from genetically modified crops, "they need to take precautions and can do it by putting up a buffer zone" of non-engineered crops.
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