Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Mouse That Roared

By Steve Sprinkel

MARCH 2, 1998:  Ever since I described the national organic regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last December as one of the top food news stories of 1997, I've been on the receiving end of a deluge of information from local and national activists who are vehemently opposed to the proposed regulations as written. Because I realize this issue is of vital importance to consumers who are concerned with food safety, I invited Texas Organic Growers Association member Steve Sprinkel to make some sense of the issue for me. His comments follow. - Virginia B. Wood

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) is the mouse that roared. Like organic farming itself, the act is a response to the failure of regulatory bodies in the United States to address issues of food safety, particularly in regard to agricultural pollution on farms and the manufacture of farm chemicals. Although the area of food production that it seeks to regulate constitutes only a tiny segment of the overall agricultural industry, the little OFPA made enough noise to draw the attention of the nation's huge agribusiness concerns. As a result, this mighty mouse is having to fight for its life.

As passed, the act was to be implemented by 1993, but the USDA dragged its heels on creating a National Organic Program (NOP) which would fulfill the mandate of the OFPA. On December 15, 1997, the USDA finally released its proposed rule for implementing the OFPA. Since the USDA took so long in getting the program into shape, one would expect the result to be impressive; unfortunately, that isn't the case. In the department's attempt to implement the OFPA, it has created a procedure that may well kill it.

By law, the NOP must be in accordance with the letter and spirit of the OFPA. However, the NOP created by the USDA varies considerably. It does not follow the National List Procedure governing materials and substances approved for use in organic farming, handling, and processing; its guidelines run contrary to recommendations regarding organic standards made by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB); and it compromises the spirit of the OFPA throughout by imposing criteria based on agronomic and sustainable doctrines as well as EPA guidelines.

To be fair, the foot soldiers on the USDA staff are not wholly responsible for the debacle made of the proposed NOP. Agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Health and Human Services, and other denizens of the Washington, D.C. labyrinth have left their fingerprints all over it. But regardless of the amount of responsibility the USDA staff bears, the end result is still that this NOP is not going to fly.

That means seven long years of grassroot efforts to establish an NOP that the organic community could support have been ignored. Two avenues remain open to organic farmers, consumers, and environmentalists to fight the proposal. One is to convince the U.S. House of Representatives to use the Regulatory Flexibility Act as a tool to reject the NOP and hire an entirely new staff to compose rules in accordance with the OFPA that the organic community could support. Since it's unlikely that they will be able to do that, the other avenue is to address the NOP as it is written. The Organic Farmers Marketing Association (http://www.iquest.net/omfa/) has made a side by side comparison of the proposed National Organic Rule with the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990 and identified serious discrepancies.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is the public part of a public/private partnership designated in the OFPA to be the gatekeeper in reviewing the four classes of substances that can be used on organic farms and in the processing of food labeled and sold as "organically produced." In the proposed NOP, the USDA effectively usurps the auth- ority of the NOSB by ignoring the board's official votes regarding recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture on approved and prohibited substances. Contrary to NOSB recommendations, USDA has proposed allowing synthetic substances, municipal sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and environmentally deleterious cotton defoliants in the production of organic products. The department has devised novel criteria that allow for the introduction of what they refer to as "incidental additives" for use in organic production. These "incidental additives" include synthetic substances, ingredients, processing aids, food additives, and enzymes, plus irradiated food and biogenetically modified and transgenic organisms. The USDA has also chosen not to review the synthetic inert ingredients used in botanical pesticides applied as needed on organic crops. Inert ingredients usually compose as much as 95% of the formulation in a pesticide and are chemicals that are considered "non-active" or not designed for the same use as the chemical listed as the active ingredient on the label. Organic farmers and consumers want to know the entire constituency of products approved for use on organic farms.

Regarding the raising of livestock for organic milk and dairy products, eggs, and meats, the USDA is proposing standards that are contrary to the OFPA and inconsistent with current organic farming and handling methods. They propose to allow the use of synthetic substances, including antibiotics, therapeutic medicines, and paraciticides, for all types of livestock with normal FDA withdrawal times. Under its proposals, any existing dairy farm could convert to organic farming by simply feeding organic feed to its animals for 30 days, and that feed could include synthetic amino acids and reprocessed proteins but still be labeled and sold as organically produced. High concentration confinement feeding of livestock would be acceptable as well. Consumers of organic products have demonstrated repeatedly that they don't want to eat food produced in this manner. Most alarmingly, the NOP proposes that livestock can be fed up to 20% non-organic feed which will be an avenue for synthetic feed and feed containing transgenic material to be introduced into the organic production stream. It is a commonly held doctrine in traditional organic farming that animals must be fed completely organic feed from birth.

As presented, the proposed National Organic Program eviscerates the grassroots idealism of the Organic Foods Production Act and, if implemented, does nothing to distinguish organically produced foods and textiles from those that are produced conventionally. In the USDA's own words, "No distinctions should be made between organically and non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance, or safety." This is a measure of how little a government bureaucracy is willing to do in the face of pressure brought by the now seamless relationship between government agencies and big business.

Now that it has essentially turned back the clock on 15 years of steady, rational improvements on the regulation on the production of organic foods at the state level and in the public sector, the USDA is brazenly soliciting public comment. Widespread opposition to the proposed NOP provides common ground for supporters of quality national and international organic standards. Concerned consumers must respond, running the procedural gauntlet according to regulatory requirements, citing dockets, providing substantiating research documents, and civilly contradicting the faulty language. We deserved much better than this.

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