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Federal Food Policy

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Healthy living has become the national obsession these past few decades. As the rate of cancer continues to escalate, and with the obesity epidemic as it is in the United States, people are turning toward healthier diets and lifestyles in hopes of enhancing their longevity. Awareness about food's nutritional content is also on the rise -- many health conscious Americans are concerned with the quality and content of the food they are scarfing down every day. As these interests have grown, so has the organic food movement. Organics, as the general definition puts it, are products that are not grown genetically, and are developed without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides or hormones.

In 1973, after the United States banned the perilous DDT, the underground organics industry grew almost overnight, due in part to the expanding consumer opposition to chemical pesticides as well as the desire to eat foods that were produced without negatively impacting the environment. Many people feared that conventional store bought food was not as safe to eat as chemical produced goods and with the growing awareness of what DDT did to human and environmental health, consumers were growing weary of the corporate agricultural industry. So people hastily flocked back to the land and planted crops on their own, or joined food co-ops where they could grow and trade products among a community of like-minded comrades. The market soon reacted to this growing demand of organic foods and in the 1990s companies that produced organics estimated sales of more than $1 billion annually. Organic food was here to stay.

Congress soon followed and passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, which was attached to the Farm Bill and established the initial framework to create National Organic Standards, which set the legal standards for organic foods. OFPA mandated the formation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which was organized to advise the Secretary of Agriculture in setting the standards for the United States Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program (NOP). NOSB based its recommendations on industry consensus an organic advocates were pleased. The next step, however, was a bit more cumbersome. Turning USDA's organic standards into rules and regulations, took some intense lobbying. Americans didn't seem ready to put the food they ate to the test. But in October 2002, USDA officially began labeling foods that met the agency's definition of 'organic' - products with 95% organic content or higher.

Attempting to define what USDA considers "organic" is like trying to figure out which lie George W. Bush told last -- it is a difficult, if not impossible task. Since 2002, USDA has changed their definition almost every year. So today's products labeled "organic" by the Agency may not have been labeled the same in 2003. This sort of wavering has been met with much criticism from many organic food advocates who believe USDA should stick to the standards it agreed upon in 1990. Others, mostly industry suit coats, still believe USDA's labeling is too stringent. And why wouldn't they? The lesser the standards, the fatter their bottom-lines. And here is where the lobbying efforts on the part of the agriculture giants come into play.
"Certification is becoming big business," writes Hilary Chop for the Alternatives Journal, "Accredited certification agencies are becoming for-profit enterprises instead of farmer - and consumer run organizations. This raises the potential for conflict of interests, particularly since farms pay the certifying agency based on their acreage. If a mega-farm wants an exception from the rules, it can be all too tempting for the enforcing officer who receives a commission, to make allowances."

Case in point: In 2002, shortly after USDA announced its labeling policy, a controversy bubbled over when an accredited USDA-certifier allowed Georgia chicken producer, Fieldale Chickens, to label its products organic while only having to use ten percent organic feed instead of 100 percent required by the NOP under USDA's guidelines. Fieldale spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire a prime time Washington lobbyist to help change organic standards at USDA. And with the help of the Georgia delegation in Congress, they were successful.

Later in April 2004, after intense lobbying efforts by ag-industry giants like ConAgra and Monsanto, USDA proposed new rules that would have allowed USDA-certified organic farms to use fertilizers and pesticides that contain "unknown" ingredients, or rather, ingredients that could not be identified by either the grower or the inspector. Also on the butcher block were USDA-certified organic dairy cows. Up until 2004, organic certified cows could not be fed any antibiotics or non-organic feed. That changed fast, as the desire for organic products grew publicly, so did the awareness among the big-agriculture folks who lobbied until they succeeded. Luckily, organic activists didn't back down from the fight. There was a public outcry, and in May 2004, USDA retracted the proposed changes they had put forth a month prior. If they hadn't reversed their plea, USDA-certified cows could have been administered antibiotics or fed non-organic fishmeal -- made with synthetic preservatives and potentially contaminated by mercury and PCBs, which is a known carcinogen.

Nonetheless, if industry giants are anything, they're persistent. And by June 2004, USDA had reinstated one of the directives from April of that same year. Today all seafood, body care products, and clothing, fertilizers and pet food can be labeled "organic" regardless of how they were manufactured. And on December 13, 2005, the U.S. Senate passed the 2006 Appropriations bill, which included language that weakened even more USDA organic labeling standards.

Young dairy cows can now be treated with antibiotics and can also be fed genetically engineered feed. Not only that, numerous synthetic food additives and processing agents can now be used in USDA approved organic foods. And in case of "emergency decrees," or rather, in case of a shortage of organic goods (shortage is determined by USDA, not the U.S. public) loopholes now exist in the federal statutes, which allow for the substitution of non-organic ingredients without any public notification or oversight. The new changes are a result of recent fight over USDA standards that began heating up in 2002 when organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey of Maine filed a federal lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture for allowing products containing synthetic ingredients to be sold as 'organic'. Mr. Harvey contended that USDA's organic standards were ambiguous, which undermined consumer organic goods and confidence in USDA's labels.

In January of 2005, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Harvey's favor. The court mandated that USDA had one year to re-write their regulations. It looked like a win for the organic community. "The decision said that synthetic substances were not permitted in any type of product labeled as 'organic,'" Joe Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety told reporters after the decision. Such products could not be labeled with the official green USDA 'Organic' stamp of approval.

But when big money is involved, don't count on justice to prevail. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who has stood up for organic standards in the past, inserted the language in the Agriculture Appropriations Bill of 2006, countered Mendelson, "The Harvey case could have major impacts on the future of the organic industry, both for producers and processors. That is why I added language to the Senate bill instructing USDA to study the implications of the decision and report back to Congress. I believe a deliberative process to achieve consensus within the organic community would have been more appropriate." Leahy received over $32,000 from the agribusiness sector during the 2004 election cycle.

The Senator's amendment now forces the U.S. Agriculture Secretary to analyze, within 90 days of the bill's passage, whether reinstating the organic labeling standards set in 2002 "would adversely affect organic farmers, organic food processors, and consumers." The secretary also has to analyze "issues regarding the use of synthetic ingredients in processing and handling" certified organic products.

This is where the Organic Trade Association (OTA) comes into the picture. The OTA represents virtually all the companies hoping to turn a profit in the organic foods market, regardless of their size. By and large the OTA was not in the least bit happy with the court's ruling in the Harvey case. They want to make money for their clients. The amendment had been opposed by many organic food growers, as well as public health officials, environmental organizations, including National Grocers Association, National Organic Coalition and Rural Advancement, Beyond Pesticides, National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, Organic Consumers Association among others.

According to the OTA's number crunching, had rules of the Harvey case gone into effect, 25 percent of organic manufacturers would have left the business, which they estimated would account for almost $758 million in lost sales per year. Clearly the OTA was putting potential profits over consumer and environmental health. The group also argued that 20 percent of organic farmers would have had to abandon their farming methods. So in effect, Harvey's case will have no real impact on the way USDA manages and labels organic food. Not surprisingly, it wasn't small organic farmers who opposed the Harvey ruling, but rather it was industry Goliaths like General Mills and Dean Foods, who, along with others, hold considerable sway over the OTA.

The entrance of such big names into the organic market is a good indication that organic foods have been corporitized. Of course, the fear is that such companies are more concerned with fattening their bottom lines than to adhering to any sort of environmental ethic. They are in it to make big money and there are billions to be made. An example of corporate influx: McDonald's restaurants in the North East will be carrying organic fair-trade coffee. General Mills owns Cascadian Farms and the popular organic Muir Glen brand. Kraft, which is owned by Phillip Morris, owns Boca, a popular soy burger company. And as mentioned above, Dean Foods, the dairy giant, owns White Wave and Silk soymilks, as well as Horizon Organic milk. And this is just the tip of the ever-expanding iceberg.

As the organic food industry has matured, USDA standards have waned. Consumers can no longer be confidant that their foods meet organic standards, even if USDA gives it its green mark of approval.
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Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the brand new book Red State (more...)
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