Archive for Wednesday, March 11, 1998

FARMERS: FOOD RULES HARD TO SWALLOW

March 11, 1998

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In the long run, they say, neither buyers nor organic farmers will benefit.

Should irradiated vegetables fertilized with sewer sludge be labeled organic? What about beef or pork from animals raised in close confinement and dosed with antibiotics? Or how about food designed by a biogeneticist?

Local organic farmers say new definitions of organic food being considered by U.S. Department of Agriculture would allow all of the above and are in other ways too loose to suit them.

If the proposed new labeling standards are adopted by the government, they say, consumer confidence in foods endorsed as organic will rightfully plummet. In the long run, they say, neither buyers nor organic farmers will benefit.

``It's either organic or it's not,'' said Dan Nagengast, an organic farmer who said the proposed standards would bless methods and ingredients that he and other area organic producers consider unhealthy. ``I don't think the (USDA) standards jibe with those of virtually any organic group I know of. The USDA standards are a lot more lenient than the ones we use.''

Nagengast is a partner in the Wild Onion Farm south of Lawrence. He also is a member of the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance, a cooperative of eight area organic farms that markets produce to consumers in Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City.

The proposed standards for the first time would create a national set of standards for organic food labeling. Currently, certification of organic food is done by a hodgepodge of 17 state governments, not including Kansas, and 33 private certifying groups.

Organic food sales in the United States are expected by industry experts to soon top $4 billion a year. A single set of national standards has been sought to lessen consumer confusion about organic labeling, provide consistency state to state and help promote sale of American organics abroad.

A 14-member national panel, the National Organic Standards Board, composed of environmentalists, organic producers and others, spent several years preparing a proposed set of standards. But USDA ultimately proposed organic standards, which in key ways differ from those proposed by the NOSB.

The proposed USDA standards have sparked widespread criticism from organic producers and major marketers of organic foods such as the Wild Oats grocery chain.

Among the controversial methods and ingredients the standards would allow:

  • Irradiation of fruits, vegetables, flour, pork and poultry to kill surface bacteria and extend shelf life. Opponents claim irradiation may break up the molecular structure of food, creating a new set of potentially toxic chemicals that should not be permitted on foods sought by consumers in search of food purity.
  • The use of sludge from municipal sewage systems to fertilize ``organic'' crops. Critics say sludge contains any number of heavy metals and other cancer-causing compounds including mercury, arsenic, lead and industrial solvents. If applied to crops, toxins in the sludge might seep into the soil and perhaps into the food.
  • Animal antibiotics. USDA's proposed guidelines are less restrictive than those proposed by the national panel. Critics say they would encourage and allow confined animal raising or factory farms and increase the possibility of antibiotic resistance among humans.

``The standards for livestock are significantly weaker than currently accepted organic practice,'' said Lynn Byczynski, a partner with Nagengast in the Wild Onion Farm and editor of a newsletter for market gardeners. ``The NOSB proposal said that animals must have access to the outdoors, prohibits refeeding of animal parts or manure, severely limits the use of antibiotics and requires organic feed. USDA would allow 20 percent nonorganic feed, confinement operations and liberal drug use.''

-- Mike Shields phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is shields@ljworld.com.

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