By Jonathan Pegg
Environment News Service
October 2, 2002

WASHINGTON, DC, October 2, 2002 (ENS) - The onset of national standards for organic foods is just around the corner, and both industry advocates and the United States Department of Agriculture are hoping it will strengthen one of the fastest growing sectors of American agriculture.

As of October 21, all U.S. producers selling more than $5,000 of organic agricultural products must be certified by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) accredited certifying agency in order to sell, label or represent their products as organic.

A new USDA Organic Seal will be available for products meeting the appropriate certifications, which Clinton era Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman called the "strongest and most comprehensive in the world."

"This will be a good thing for consumers and it will give the term organic more legitimacy," said Organic Trade Association (OTA) spokesperson Holly Givens. "It will also level the playing field so that any product sold in the U.S. as organic will have to comply with same standards as domestically produced products."

The USDA organic standards provide definitions for the term "100% Organic," and for the term "Organic," indentifying products that contain 95 percent organically produced ingredients. "Made with Organic Ingredients" defines products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

Products certified as either the "100% Organic" or "Organic" may then use the USDA Organic Seal.

Foreign producers of organic products will have to meet certification and labeling requirements through a certified agency recognized by the USDA or through an equivalent program approved by the department.

Previously there had been no uniform national standard for organically produced foods. Consumers and producers faced a mix of standards established by state governments and private certification agencies.

The introduction of national standards comes as a boost to an industry that is still in its infancy. Organic farming yields less than two percent of U.S. agricultural products, but this sector has grown at least 20 percent annually for the past decade.

Americans spent more than $9 billion on organic products in 2001, according to the Organic Trade Association, a figure the group predicts will top $20 billion by 2005.

This certification process is the end result of more than 10 years of negotiations and discussions between organic producers, distributors, certifiers and the federal government.

The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 set national standards for the production, processing and certification of organic products, and gave the USDA the authority to form the National Organic Program. In late 2000 under Agriculture Secretary Glickman, the program issued its final rule for national organic standards.

The rule got tied up in the late 1990s due to debate over genetically engineered foods and organic production standards, according to Ellen Holton, marketing director for Quality Assurance International, a third party organic certifier. The final rules prohibit the use of genetic engineering methods, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge for fertilization.

The overwhelming lobbying and support for this final position, Holton said, "showed that this isn't just about a marketing and labeling program. It is about consumers and what they want."

But will consumers really notice the new standards? Perhaps not immediately, Givens said, but the effort is helping establish a legitimate framework for the organic industry. It gives the industry a solid footing to benefit from other government programs as well as a stamp of legitimacy for consumers who are unsure of what organic really means.

Michael Bradley, CEO of Natural by Nature, an organic dairy producer based in Pennsylvania, has not found the standards particularly onerous, but he does not expect much change come October 21.

Natural by Nature's products are already featured in stores in more than 25 states and Bradley does not foresee a rush of new business because of the new organic labels.

"The new labels are really more for the mass market, not the typical organic buyer," Bradley observed. "It is hard to say what impact they'll have."

Find out more about the national organic food standards online at the USDA National Organic Program:


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