Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy on the
Organic Rider in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill
February 13, 2003
Mr. President, I want to alert you and my fellow Senators to a particularly egregious rider that was included in the Omnibus Appropriations Conference Report after the Conference Committee met behind closed doors. This special interest rider will gut the organic standards just recently enacted by U.S. Department of Agriculture.
I understand this special interest provision was inserted into the bill on behalf of a single producer who essentially wants to hijack the “organic” certification label for his own purposes. He wants to get a market premium for his products, without actually being an organic product.
This provision will allow producers to label their meat and dairy products “organic” even though they do not meet the strict criteria set forth by USDA, including the requirement that the animals be fed organically grown feed. This approach was considered and outright rejected by USDA last June. The entire organic industry opposed this weakening of the organic standards. If beef, poultry, pork and dairy producers are able to label their products as “organic” without using organic feed, which is one of the primary inputs, then what exactly is organic about the product?
This provision is particularly galling because so many producers have already made the commitment to organic production. For most, this is a huge financial commitment on their part. I have already heard from some large producers – General Mills, Tyson Foods – as well as scores of farmers from Vermont and around the country who are enraged by this special loophole included for one company that does not want to play by the rules.
I am also very disappointed that just because one company could not create this loophole to the organic rule in public during the USDA process, the Republican leadership decided to bury it within the 2-foot tall spending bill. It was done behind closed doors after the conference committee met in public.
I will be introducing legislation to strike this rider from the Omnibus Appropriations Act and I hope to move it through Congress quickly before it does gut the organic meat and dairy industry. We need to send a message to all producers that if you want to benefit from the organic standards economically, you must actually meet them. When I included the “The Organic Foods Production Act” in the1990 Farm Bill, it was because farmers recognized the growing consumer demand for organically produced products, but needed a tool to help consumers know which products were truly organic and which were not. The Act directed USDA to set minimum national standards for products labeled “organic” so that consumers could make informed buying decisions. The national standard also reassured farmers selling organically produced products that they would not have to follow separate rules in each state, and that their products could be labeled “organic” overseas.
The new standards have been enthusiastically welcomed by consumers, because through organic labeling they now can know what they are choosing and paying for when they shop. This proposal to weaken the organic standards would undermine public confidence in organic labeling, which is less than a year old.
Getting the organic standards that are behind the “USDA Organic” label right was a long and difficult process, but critically important to the future of the industry. Along the way, some tried to allow products treated with sewer sludge, irradiation, and antibiotics to be labeled “organic.” The public outcry against this was overwhelming. More than 325,000 people weighed in during the comment period, as did I. The groundswell of support for strong standards clearly showed that the public wants “organic” to really mean something. Those efforts to hijack the term were defeated and this one should be too.
Consumers and producers rely on the standard. I will soon be introducing a bill that will reverse this rider. I hope members will cosponsor my bill and send a message to special interests that they cannot hijack the organic industry through a rider on the spending bill. This provision is an insult to organic producers and to consumers around the country.