- PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. (AP) - In a reversal, the government will initiate new
rules saying that food cannot claim to be "organic" if it has
been irradiated, genetically engineered or treated with antibiotics, a
top agriculture official told farmers Thursday.
- The labeling plan was developed by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture in response to an outcry last year against
an earlier set of rules organic farmers considered too permissive.
- "I'm telling you we are looking
at every possible way to protect the integrity of your industry,"
said Keith Jones of the department's National Organic Program.
- The new rules governing fruit, vegetables
and livestock will probably be published next summer in the Federal Register
and could take effect in the fall, Jones said.
- The department is trying to develop the
first national standards on organic food labeling to replace a hodgepodge
of state rules and industry guidelines.
- U.S. sales of organic foods have grown
20 percent annually for the last seven years. In 1996, they exceeded $3.5
billion. There are now more than 10,000 U.S. farms trying to raise organic
crops and livestock, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
- Farmers have their own informal guidelines
for what they call organic. For instance, fruits and vegetables shouldn't
have pesticides, herbicides or preservatives, and livestock should be
raised in an open-air environment, without antibiotics or hormones.
- Last year, the USDA proposed allowing
food to be labeled "organic" even if it was irradiated to kill
germs, genetically engineered, or subjected to sewage sludge or chemical
- Organic farmers, marketers and consumers
sent more than 280,000 protest letters, prompting Agriculture Secretary
Dan Glickman to withdraw the proposal. Jones shared details of the department's
latest proposal at the Ecological Farming Conference, the nation's largest
gathering of organic farmers.
- Holding a hand-drawn paper target to
his chest, he conceded that the federal agency has failed the organic
farmers in the past.
- "It seems that in the current environment
the USDA can't do anything right," he said. "But I can tell
you today we have a commitment to get it right."
- He got a generally sympathetic reception.
- "I'm very encouraged," said
Bob Anderson, who runs Walnut Acres in Penn Creek, Pa., and is on the
National Organic Standards Board, a coalition of organic farmers. "There's
nothing like 280,000 comments to get the government's attention."
- However, some farmers were skeptical
and said they want to see the rules in print.
- "We farmers in West Texas joke about
never having seen rain but we still believe in it. That's kind of where
we are in this process," said Michael Sligh of the Campaign for Sustainable
Agriculture, based in Chapel Hill, N.C.