Advertisement

Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

New USDA laws, seals gnaw at organic farmers

April 6, 2001

Advertisement

A hodgepodge of foods claiming organic growth and production were forced to back up their claims or be booted from the organic section of grocery store shelves earlier this year.

Those that remained now bear "USDA Organic" seals, displaying to customers that the producer has met new federal regulation standards for organic foods.

The USDA passed regulations recently that require organic farmers
to meet certain standards to carry an "organic" label. In January
at the Community Mercantile Co-op, 901 Miss., produce assistant
Bridget Meier stocks organically grown apples.

The USDA passed regulations recently that require organic farmers to meet certain standards to carry an "organic" label. In January at the Community Mercantile Co-op, 901 Miss., produce assistant Bridget Meier stocks organically grown apples.

"Now everybody's going to be on the same level," said Lynn Byczynski, a Lawrence organic farmer, in late January. "It'll clarify some of the murkiness on what it means to be organic."

Although that government-regulated level guarantees customers the organic authenticity they're seeking, some farmers worry they will get beat on the equal playing field the USDA is creating.

The new regulations, which replace various state rules and private certification agency standards, ban pesticides, genetic engineering, growth hormones and irradiation of organic foods and require dairy cattle to have pasture space.

These standards, announced in December by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are nothing new to many small farmers like Byczynski who have exceeded standards from the industry's onset.

Byczynski said the new standards would cause few changes on her and her husband's 20-acre organic farm south of Lawrence.

"As small farmers, we're not terribly excited about it," Byczynski said. "It's really giving us some validity that we really didn't need."

Organic industry blossoms

The organic industry has swelled to $7.8 billion in the past decade and is only getting larger. As more large-scale producers have developed organic foods, small farmers have had more difficulty competing, said Nancy O'Connor, Community Mercantile nutrition educator and marketing director.

Some producers currently meet high standards of private certification agencies and are labeled as such. As the new regulations go into effect over the next 18 months, those labels will be replaced by USDA Organic seals on all organic products.

"One person's USDA certification is not better than other USDA standards," O'Connor said.

Without differentiation, O'Connor said, small farmers may have more difficulty competing with the efficiency of big-name producers.

Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Assn., said her organization supported the new regulations. She understands the concerns, but stressed that producers can still advertise on their label if they exceed USDA regulations.

DiMatteo said the new regulations, which have been in the works for almost 10 years, will bring growth to the industry and will remain amenable. She said she thought the Bush administration would agree to the Clinton administration standards because of the length of time the regulations have been in the works and the bipartisan support they've enjoyed.

Growing pains of the new standards may include costs for certification and changes in production to meet standards, but they will apply only to producers who haven't been certified or met standards in the past. These producers may choose not to meet the organic standards and label their foods otherwise.

"Those that stay in organic will be in a more secure and vibrant marketplace because the regulations will bring confidence to the consumer," DiMatteo said.

Consumer confidence is crucial as the industry continues to grow, O'Connor said.

"This is a bus that's driving away fast and lots and lots of businesses are jumping on board that haven't cared about organic at all," O'Connor said. "If lots of people are getting on the bus, we need standards."

O'Connor also pointed out that the same standards will lead producers large and small to push the envelope and remain innovate and effective.

"From a consumer point of view, it's no doubt a good thing," O'Connor said.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.