At a news conference this morning USDA Secretary Ann Veneman announced that the agency is withdrawing its recent policy directives clarifying certain organic food production standards. The move comes amidst a rising tide of criticism from organic food producers, consumers and marketers who viewed the directives as a weakening of federal standards and an attack upon the integrity of organic agriculture.
“The Secretary’s announcement is great news for the organic food community,” said Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute. “This is a good first step, but the National Organic Program is still in need of major overhaul, even regime change,” Kastel added.
Farmers and consumer groups, who have been in conflict over the past few years, over, the implementation of rules governing organic agriculture, mobilized after the recent USDA guidance documents were published. These groups objected to provisions allowing for the use of antibiotics on dairy farms, organic pesticides that might also includes toxic inert ingredients and allowing fish, pet food and other products to be labeled organic without third-party certification.
After making the announcement, Veneman indicated that she would ask agency staff to work with the National Organic Standards Board – a group of organic food experts appointed by the Agricultural Secretary – and the organic food industry for a resolution of the concerns that had been raised.
“Secretary Veneman has a wonderful opportunity, at this point, to overhaul the staff at the organic program. The directives that she is withdrawing are just symptomatic of a poisoned and adversarial relationship between the USDA and the organic community,” Kastel said. Many agricultural observers are looking at how Veneman handles this crisis, reforms staff and makes new appointments to the National Organic Standards Board. “This will be the test, in this election year, to see whether the Bush administration is going to be friendly to this segment of agriculture, organics, which has helped so many family-scale farms survive”.
Organic food has been a rapidly growing bright spot in the agricultural economy, with sales expected to top $12 billion this year. “Weakening organic standards could severely damage consumer interest and confidence in the organic food label,” noted Kastel. “We remain concerned that agency staff in National Organics Program seem unable or unwilling to protect us from those seeking to profit from loopholes and shortcuts in the production and quality of organic food.”