WASHINGTON - Several groups that successfully pushed the Department of Agriculture to drop new guidelines allowing pesticides and antibiotics in organic farming are questioning whether the rules remain in place.
"We are very concerned about the status of the directives that were withdrawn by the USDA," said Joe Mendelsohn III, Legal Director of The Center for Food Safety, in a conference call Friday.
He said that efforts to find out what the USDA is telling its certifiers have been met by a "stonewall" by the department.
Urvashi Rangan, a scientist at Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., said that the USDA has not answered its questions about whether antibiotics or pesticides can be used in food labeled organic.
"Our position is we're very unclear whether they have rescinded the guidelines," she said.
Rangan urged consumers who want to buy organic milk, for example, to look for labels that ensure no antibiotics are being used.
Friday's call comes as the National Organic Standards Board, which recommends policy to the Agriculture Department, prepares for three days of meetings in Washington next week. The board helped build public pressure on the USDA to rescind the new guidelines earlier this year.
USDA officials will meet with the board at the meeting to go over the current state of the regulations.
"We have told the Organic Standards Board when we talked to them that we would work with them on these issues," said A.J. Yates, administrator of the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service, which oversees the government's National Organic Program.
"We want this program to work. Organic farming is of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture. We want to clarify the issues they have concerns about."
The organic food industry has sales of about $10.8 billion a year.
© 2004 AP