U.S. suggests standards to define organic foods
December 15, 1997
Web posted at: 3:25 p.m. EST (2025 GMT)
In this story:
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal government on Monday took
first steps toward regulating organic, or so-called natural,
foods. Americans who want to learn more about the proposed
guidelines or comment on them can do so on the Internet.
The long-awaited rules, intended to end a patchwork of more
than three dozen state and private sector organic certifying
standards, will implement the Organic Foods Production Act of
The guidelines won't become final until next year and will be
open for public comment for 90 days.
Full details are available at the Agriculture Department's
Agricultural Marketing Service Web site. Visit
To gain a government seal that a product truly is organic or
natural, the proposed regulations require that:
- Raw products be 100 percent organic.
- Processed foods contain 95 percent organic ingredients.
- Processed foods with 50 percent to 95 percent organic content could be labeled as "made with certain organic ingredients."
- Processed foods with less than 50 percent organic content must specify the organic ingredients.
- Imported items sold as "organic" must meet the same standards as domestically produced foods.
Fines of up to $10,000 could be imposed on anyone who sells
or labels products that do not meet the standards.
The rules also set standards for producing and handling the
foods, including use of pesticides and a prohibition on
antibiotics or hormones to stimulate growth in livestock.
"When we certify organic, we are certifying not just a
product, but the farming and handling practices that yield
that product," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told
In making the announcement, the government sidestepped
controversial issues such as use of irradiation and crops
that have been genetically altered.
Glickman said more public hearings would be held before a
decision is made on those issues, which many farmers and
environmental groups contend would violate the all-natural
spirit of organic food.
"I have intentionally left open some of the more divisive
questions," Glickman said. "I think it's important to have a
full national and international discussion of this issue."
Supporters of organic farming welcomed the plan but said
using irradiation, genetically altered crops and sewage
sludge as fertilizer would undermine organic farming.
"The industry has a long history of operating within certain
guidelines that are acceptable," said Ken Cook, president of
the Environmental Working Group. "These questions need to be
answered very clearly."
The National Organics Standards Board created by Congress to
help develop the proposed rules recommended against including
the controversial practices.
Although organic products account for only about 1 percent of
food sales nationwide, sales have grown by more than 20
percent annually since 1990 and account for $3.5 billion in
Agriculture Department officials forecast a fourfold increase
in sales the next decade.
Glickman said the lack of a national standard makes it
impossible for consumers -- many of whom pay more for
organic products -- to be sure of what they're getting.
The proposals should also make it easier for U.S. organic
food companies to increase exports to the European Union, a
major consumer of organic foods, he said.
About half the states now have their own organic-food
regulations, and they would be permitted to issue stricter
standards than the ones enforced by USDA, subject to approval
by the agriculture secretary.
The Organic Trade Association estimates there are up to
12,000 organic farmers in the United States out of roughly 2
million farms nationwide. They tend to be smaller
operations, usually selling vegetables and other specialty
crops at local farmers' markets to small groceries and
Organic farmers face higher costs because their natural
fertilizers and pest control efforts tend to be more
expensive and they must hire more workers to replace the
mechanization common in conventional farming. Thus, their
produce costs more.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America, representing the makers
of name-brand foods and packaged goods, called the new
uniform standards "a great service to America's consumers
and the food-producing industry."
But it added that the nutrition, health and safety levels of
organic and "traditionally produced products" were the same
and the conventional food industry was using new techniques
to reduce use of crop-protection chemicals.
Correspondent Carolyn O'Neil contributed to this report.