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Bill May Loosen 'Organic' Standards

Rider to bill would make it easier for meat producers to get USDA certification.


By Melinda Fulmer
Times Staff Writer

February 14, 2003

With a day's handiwork, a Georgia Republican looks to have undone what it took organic farmers and environmentalists more than a decade to achieve.

A last-minute provision inserted in the 2003 federal spending bill at the behest of Rep. Nathan Deal would loosen restrictions in the federal Organic Standards Act and allow poultry farmers and other livestock producers to avoid using organic feed if it costs more than twice as much as conventional feed grown with pesticides. Yet they'd still get to label their products "organic."

The move outraged farmers and retailers, who say it could render the term meaningless for meat and mislead consumers.

In October, after 12 years of effort by supporters, federal standards were enacted that require livestock producers to use animal feed that is free of pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals in order to win organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This is really bad," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "It would call into question the organic nature of any livestock" sold as meat.

What's more, he said, the provision might lead to further weakening of the standards, which in turn could threaten the organic movement just as it is beginning to go mainstream

Although organic meat accounts for less than 1% of the $37.4 billion in U.S. meat sales, it is one of the fastest-growing sectors of organic food, with more giant producers such as Tyson Foods Inc. entering the market.

One large Georgia poultry company, Fieldale Farms, has headed the fight to loosen the standards, first lobbying Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman last year for a waiver from using 100% organic feed on grounds that the supply was inadequate.

Veneman ultimately shot down Fieldale's request. But many in the industry believe Fieldale has been lobbying Rep. Deal, who helped write the letter asking Veneman for a waiver to push for looser feed standards through other methods.

"We're paying three times the cost of conventional grain, but these guys don't want to do that," said Randy Duranceau, a vice president with California-based Petaluma Poultry, the nation's largest organic chicken supplier. "This is just a travesty. It's wrong and it's unethical."

Calls to Deal's office were not returned. And Fieldale executives could not be reached for comment.

USDA spokesman Kevin Herglotz said Thursday that the department was not sure how it would respond to the provision, which was added as a rider to the $397.4-billion federal spending bill just hours before it was approved by the House late Thursday. The measure then passed the Senate.

"We'll have to take a close look to ensure we're able to maintain a solid organic program," Herglotz said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), sponsor of the original Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, plans to introduce separate legislation to repeal the provision. "This proposal to weaken the organic standards would undermine public confidence in organic labeling," Leahy said in a letter to his Senate colleagues late Thursday. "The public wants organic to really mean something."

Indeed, executives at Whole Foods Market Inc., the nation's largest seller of natural and organic foods, said Thursday that they won't stock organically labeled poultry and other meat unless they can be sure that producers are using only 100% organic feed.

"That's the national standard, and that's what our customers expect," said Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of governmental affairs for Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods. "To do otherwise undermines the integrity of the organic label."

Wittenberg and others also said less demand for organic feed could mean less incentive for growers of feed material such as corn and soy to make the transition to organic.

"This is an example of someone doing an end run to manipulate the government, with disregard for the public's wishes," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Assn.

Copyright 2003
Los Angeles Times.  Reprinted with Permission.

 
 
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