Truth or consequences?

Fund for Investigative Reporting

Used to be, you could bite into an apple and your biggest worry might be finding a worm in it. Today, growing numbers of consumers seem more worried about not finding one.

Concerns about agribusiness practices and chemicals have fueled a boom in organic food, turning it from grassroots fringe phenomenon into multibillion-dollar industry.

But with the federal government poised to issue rules to regulate organic food — replacing a patchwork of more than 40 sets of standards now used by different state and local certifiers — many in the organics community fear their brave new paradigm may come crashing down.

“The whole organic movement is essentially threatened by these measures,” asserts Yancey County organic gardener Barbara Webster. “You won’t know what you’re eating; ‘organic’ will become a meaningless label.” Webster, a longtime environmental activist, publishes Mountain Farm Stewards, a newsletter aimed at “people who care about sustainable living, good food, and the land that grows it.”

But Senior Marketing Specialist Michael Hankin — one of five USDA staffers who actually wrote the rules — says much of the furor stems from misinterpretation. “We’re going to protect consumers,” he proclaims.

One thing nearly everybody seems to agree on is the importance of speaking up [see “Be heard now…”]. “It is crucial,” declares Hankin. “The analogy I use is, [the rules are] a caterpillar — the butterfly it turns into will depend on the comments we get from people.”

Opponents say there’s plenty to comment on. In their current form, the proposed rules would allow the “organic” label to be applied to foods that have been produced using irradiation, genetic engineering and fertilizer made from sewage sludge [see “Hot potatoes”].

They also fear that the fees the USDA is proposing to charge small farmers and certifying agencies could drive many out of business.

Beyond these specifics lies a deeper fear that big business and big government are muscling in on territory heretofore reserved for environmentalists and assorted alterna-types — and trampling on their values, in the process.

“This is a people’s industry — it’s human beings caring about their own health, the health of their children, the health of the environment,” observes French Broad Food Co-op Produce Buyer Diane Nettles.

But Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, responding to the early furor following the rules’ release, told reporters, “Our goal is to develop a final rule that the organic community and all the public can embrace.”

Not everyone believes the proposed rules will kill what now passes for organic farming. Some say they may actually expand consumer access to organic food — and lower prices.

Others maintain that this is all a part of industry growing-pains.

“I think it’s neither a mistake nor a great step forward — it’s just something that had to happen,” observes Mark Lewis of Carolina Organic Growers, a local farmers’ cooperative.

But the overwhelming consensus among those interviewed was that the best thing that could happen to the rules would be an early death.

“I hope the powers that brought this travesty before the public are shocked and will withdraw,” declares Marty Thies of Carolina Natural Beef.

A bit of history

The road leading to the proposed regulations has been long and full of twists. In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, in response to requests from consumers (and some in the industry) that the government impose order on the chaos of conflicting claims and practices that then characterized organic farming. The law established the National Organic Standards Board — a group of organic growers, distributors, consumer advocates and environmentalists charged with making recommendations on which the USDA would base its regulations.

Fast-forward seven years. On Dec. 15, 1997, the USDA finally released its proposed rules for public comment — and the firestorm broke.

In the intervening years, a fledgling industry had matured — and farming and marketing practices were becoming increasingly standardized without government intervention, say industry observers.

The National Organic Standards Board, meanwhile, had spent two-and-a-half years collecting public input — and about as much time wrangling over issues and producing its recommendations to the USDA.

Many in the industry seemed reasonably pleased with the recommendations, despite some disagreements. But when the USDA produced a draft of the proposed rules last June, it was sent to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget and other federal agencies for review.

And that, critics say, is where the real problems started. Each agency, they charge, tried to rewrite the rules to reflect its own agenda — such as finding a way to dispose of sewage sludge, or promoting genetic engineering. In the process, many feel, the real spirit of the organics movement got lost.

“We spent all this time, money and energy telling them what we wanted, and they ignored it. It’s frustrating,” laments Tony Kleese of the Organic Certifiers Council.

Hankin, however, maintains that the proposed rules include all but about a dozen of the board’s hundreds of recommendations, and that some of the exclusions were necessary because the board’s position conflicted with the 1990 law. He also points to a number of places where he says the proposed rules are stricter than what was recommended.

And in some cases, Hankin says, the USDA deliberately postponed making final decisions, calling instead for more public comment on key issues about which the standards board itself was almost evenly divided.

“Those of us at the [NOSB] meetings knew … the vote [on certain key issues] was very close,” he explains, adding, “We may have chosen a different route [in order] to receive public comment.”

Once the public-comment period ends on April 30, the USDA will assimilate a mountain of comments (more than 18,000 had already been received as of mid-March) and produce another draft document. What happens next is unclear, but Secretary Glickman has committed the agency to providing “the opportunity for additional [public] participation.”

Nevertheless, if you’re concerned about your access to organic food, now’s the time to sound off.

“All these agencies … looked at [the rules] in terms of ‘What do we want to get out of it?’ — as if [organic food] were a brand-new thing, and they were going to make it,” Lewis observes. “But consumers need to say, ‘This is what we want. We’re the purchasers.'”

When world-views collide

At bottom, the clash over organics standards reflects a fundamental philosophical divide.

“The USDA thinks biogenetics is the future of agriculture. The EPA thinks spreading sewage sludge is. … The FDA thinks irradiation is. … The organic community thinks this is unnecessary. It’s a clash of two food [systems],” Kleese observes.

And the 1990 law doesn’t even mention some concerns deemed essential by most organic growers, such as enhancing biodiversity and ecological harmony.

The NOSB had recommended that those concepts be included in the rules’ definition of “organic” — but because they weren’t in the underlying law, they couldn’t be inserted in the regs, say the feds.

Ironically, the same legal roadblock also applies to health-and-safety concerns — perhaps the most common reason people buy organic produce. The NOSB wanted stricter rules on pesticide residues, for example. But the USDA rejected that suggestion, because the law “does not authorize our program to be a food safety program.”

Many say such logic runs counter to the industry’s whole purpose. “Why the organic industry is there in the first place — and has grown 20+ percent a year for the past seven years — is because there is a large segment of the population that doesn’t believe the government is protecting the food supply,” argues Kleese.

Adding to the irony, Hankin says the idea of perhaps allowing irradiation of organic food stems from escalating concerns about food safety. But most in the organics community want no part of that controversial practice.

“The USDA is in an awkward situation,” observes part-time organic farmer Tom Elmore of Leicester, because groups within the agency that deal with conventional agriculture “wonder how it makes their product look if organic is seen as better or safer” than conventionally grown produce.

Elmore himself makes no such claims for his organically grown lettuce and other crops. But he does believe consumers have a right to decide what goes into their mouths.

“If I go to all that trouble [to grow organic produce] and some consumer is willing to pay more for it, they have a right to be able to do that.”

Even when the two sides use the same words, they may not actually agree. Both talk about promoting organic agriculture — but does that mean supporting small farmers, or encouraging agribusiness? Consider the response by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, on the day the regs were released. “We believe [the rules] will set a firm foundation for the future growth of this market segment by creating a nationally applicable definition,” said a GMA press release, noting that the trade group’s “member companies have sales of $400 billion.”

The release also states, “To the extent the buying public wants organic products, we will provide the choice, value and quality they seek. We remind consumers [that] the nutrition, health and safety of organic foods are the same as traditionally produced products.”

Many people also buy organic to support local farmers using sustainable agricultural practices. But those values, too, might be undercut if large-scale agribusiness moves into the organics arena and starts flooding the market with organic produce trucked in from mega-farms thousands of miles away.

Dollars and sense

The organic-foods industry is booming. Natural Foods Merchandiser reports total industry revenues of $3.5 billion in 1996 — up 26.3 percent from 1995 — and that trend is expected to continue.

With that kind of money at stake, it’s little wonder that the rules are attracting so much scrutiny. Double-digit growth has made agribusiness sit up and take notice. And amid generally hard times for small farmers, small-scale organic growers in the mountains, though still struggling, at least seem to find a ready market for their produce — despite charging substantially higher prices.

Many fear that could change, however, once the rules take effect.

For one thing, organic farmers would have to pay the USDA an administrative fee. What’s more, the certifying agencies would also face new fees — and they say they would have no choice but to pass those costs on to farmers, too.

“The way the fees are structured, I don’t think we could have a viable program for 50 farmers — which is what we have now,” reports Certification Coordinator Sarah Slover of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a nonprofit certifier of organic growers. She estimates that the group’s roughly $12,000 budget would more than double — and those costs would have to be passed on to farmers, who are already feeling maxed out. Every local grower interviewed echoed that assessment.

But Hankin feels the USDA’s fees are reasonable. Farmers, he says, would pay the agency just $50 a year (though they would also have to pay their certifier whatever it charged them). A small certifier, Hankin says, would pay the USDA about $2,640 in the first year, to become accredited. Later on, the certifier would also have to pay for site visits, whose cost would vary, depending on the operation’s size. “We can’t help the fact that certification is mandatory and there are fees associated with that,” he observes.

Some, however, find it ironic that the fees could force small growers to raise prices at a time when organic food has actually been getting cheaper.

And the rules’ lack of provision for “transitional organic” could make it harder for new small-scale farmers to go organic, critics say. Some certifiers now allow growers whose land hasn’t been organically farmed long enough for their produce to be labeled “organic” to market it as “transitional organic.”

“It’s another way the economics of the proposal completely work to squash the people who started the industry,” says Nettles. “Who can become organic? Only people with trust funds, or huge corporations that are able to wait the three years [to get certified].”

Consumer conundrum

No one really knows how the rules will affect consumers. But many in the organics community believe the regs, in their current form, would make it much harder, if not impossible, for shoppers to consistently obtain the same caliber organic produce they’re getting now — or, for that matter, to be sure about what they were getting.

“I think it could affect the entire marketplace,” says Lewis. “It would make consumers very nervous, and would create a labeling problem. The law will make it difficult to use words to describe differences in how growers raise food.”

Hankin emphatically disputes that assertion. “The rule makes it very clear: A producer … can make any claim about their product, as long as it’s truthful. They can say ‘pesticide-free,’ ‘antibiotic-free,’ or ‘made with 100-percent organic ingredients.'”

But a broad array of industry groups — as well as most of those interviewed for this story — remain convinced that restrictions in the regs on the use of certain words would make honest labeling of organic food well-nigh impossible.

Ironically, Hankin says the restrictions are there to prevent fraudulent claims. “We’re required by Congress to protect [organic farmers] from those who make claims implying that their products are organic when they’re not. This is not an attempt to muzzle organic labeling.”

In the end, it may come down to how the courts interpret the USDA’s final rules. But even if Hankin’s view proves correct, another key provision could still spell trouble for consumers.

Although states are allowed to adopt stricter standards for organics — with USDA approval — those standards can’t discriminate against produce grown elsewhere.

In other words, it may be OK for one state’s farmers to adhere to stricter standards, and even to say so on their labels. But they can’t imply their produce is better or safer than “certified organic” food grown elsewhere to looser standards — and perhaps at lower cost– which may be sold right alongside.

Hankin defends the need for uniform standards, noting that if a state were allowed to set a stricter standard for pesticide residues than what the USDA requires, “that would [mean] that foods produced under the National Organic Program could not be considered organic in that state.”

And the day the USDA released its proposed regs, Secretary Glickman told reporters, “These rules are about giving consumers choices about how their food is produced.”

Not without a fight

For area consumers, the best news may be that local organic-food outlets remain committed to delivering the same quality goods they do now — whatever it may take.

Produce buyers for local stores say they know who they’re dealing with, whether they buy directly from farmers or through distributors.

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