Though for decades some foods have carried the label "organic," consumers never could be sure exactly what the term meant. Action by the Department of Agriculture last week should clarify things.
On Oct. 21, USDA implemented regulations governing the production and labeling of organic foods. Until now, bodies from state governments to trade and consumer groups loosely–and independently–regulated organic products, leading to often conflicting standards about which products could rightfully claim to be organic.
Under the new guidelines, foods labeled as organic must have been produced without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or sewage sludge. They must not have undergone irradiation intended to prolong shelf life, nor contain genetically modified ingredients. Animals raised for organic meat, eggs, and milk must not have received antibiotics or growth hormones. Plus, such animals must have been fed organic feed and had access to the outdoors.
"Today, when consumers see the USDA national organic seal on products, they will know that the products labeled organic will be consistent across the country, said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman at an Oct. 21 press briefing in Washington, D.C.
USDA's new regulations have been long in the making. As early as the 1940s, farmers experimented with small, chemical-free plots. The idea gradually expanded to include many large commercial operations. The industry's fast growth during the 1980s prompted consumer advocates, politicians, and organic-food producers themselves to call for consistent, broadly recognized standards.
In 1990, Congress passed a law directing USDA to write those standards. After receiving several hundred thousand public comments on how to define "organic," the agency released a final set of standards in 2000. However, organic farmers, food processors, and vendors weren't obliged to abide by those guidelines until last week.
"Today's implementation of the national organic standards validates over a decade of work to generate stringent standards that were sought by farmers, environmentalists, and consumers," said Katherine DiMatteo of the Organic Trade Association at the press briefing. Her association is based in Greenfield, Mass.
"Like using a seat belt or a bicycle helmet, choosing organic products is a simple way to reduce . . . the potential for harm caused by the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers," said DiMatteo.
Specific wording for labels on organic foods are part of the regulations. Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients. Products labeled "organic" must have at least 95 percent of their ingredients certifiably organic. Foods containing at least 70 percent organic ingredients may be labeled "made with organic ingredients" and list up to three of them on the packaging. Under the new regulations, any product containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients may not be marketed as an organic food.
Products that fall into the 100 percent organic and organic categories each qualify to sport a new "USDA Organic" seal. The first products bearing these labels appeared in shops last week. The government can impose a fine up to $10,000 on anyone who sells or labels an organic product that doesn't live up to the new regulations.
USDA must certify producers and farmers who produce foods that will be labeled organic. Some small organic farmers have expressed dismay over the costs of this certification requirement. USDA says it has set aside $5 million to help small farms pay for expenses of becoming certified.
Most food-industry groups, however, welcomed the new regulations. The standards bring a much needed uniformity, comments Alison Kretser of the Washington, D.C.–based Grocery Manufacturers of America. Now, consumers can identify organic foods and ingredients "whether they live in California, Kansas, or Georgia, she says. The organization represents food producers such as Kellogg's, Heinz, and Del Monte.
Standards for growing, harvesting, shipping, and storing organic foods . . . will maintain consumer confidence in the quality of organic products, says Kretser.
The regulations were also welcomed by Austin, Texas–based Whole Foods Market, the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods. The standards come "at a time when shoppers are actively seeking out organic foods more than ever before," the company said in a statement.
According to the USDA, the organic-food industry has recently grown by 20 to 25 percent per year, with 2000 sales reaching $7.8 billion in the United States and $17.5 billion internationally.
Indeed, USDAs Economic Research Service (ERS) observes in a new report, 2000 was a threshold year. It marked the first time more organic foods were sold in conventional supermarkets than at alternative venues.
Today, nearly 20,000 natural-foods stores and 73 percent of all conventional supermarkets sell organic products. Although fresh produce remains the top selling organic foods, organic dairy goods saw the fastest increase in market share over the past decade. During the 5-year period ending in 1999, sales of these dairy items quintupled.
Fostering the burgeoning growth of organic goods, the ERS study found, was a doubling in the farmland certified as organic between 1992 and 1997–to 1.3 million acres.
Organic Trade Association
P.O. Box 547
Greenfield, MA 01302
Web site: [Go to]
Grocery Manufacturers of America
1010 Wisconsin Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20007
Web site: [Go to]
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250-1300
Web site: [Go to]
Perkins, S. 1997. Transgenic plants provoke petition. Science News 152(Sept. 27):199.
USDA's National Organic Program Web site can be found at [Go to].