News & Analysis on Genetic Engineering & Factory Farming
Issue #5 (December 20, 1997)
by: Ronnie Cummins, Pure Food Campaign USA
S.O.S. SAVE ORGANIC STANDARDS IN THE USA!
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is attempting to redefine organic foods
to include foods that are genetically engineered, irradiated,
factory-farmed, and grown on top of toxic sewage sludge. This represents
nothing less than an "unfriendly take over" of the natural foods industry
by agribusiness, chemical-biotech corporations, and giant supermarket
On Dec. 16, 1997 the USDA announced their proposed national organic
standards. These standards define what can be legally certified and labeled
as organic. Following their final approval, it basically will be illegal
for producers and retailers to uphold and promote standards stricter than
the USDA allows.
Currently, when we shop for foods labeled "organic," we can be reasonably
certain of what we're getting. But under the proposed USDA laws, there are
no explicit prohibitions against:
* Genetic Engineering - Using genetic engineering to produce foods.
* Factory Farming - Using inhumane, intensive confinement, factory farm
style production methods on farm animals.
* Toxic Sludge - Spreading toxic sewage sludge and industrial wastes,
so-called "biosolids," on farmlands and pastures where animals graze and
food is grown.
* Animal Cannibalism - Feeding back diseased and waste animal body parts,
offal, and blood to farm animals, the practice that has led to Mad Cow
Disease in Europe.
* Food Irradiation - Using radioactive nuclear wastes to "kill bacteria"
and prolong the shelf life of food products.
It's not too late. Continue reading this Action Alert to see what you can
do to Save Organic Standards!
STAND UP FOR YOUR RIGHTS! HERE'S WHAT YOU CAN DO TO SAVE ORGANIC STANDARDS!
Form an SOS Action Network in your local area. Collect the names and
contact information (including telephone and fax numbers and email
addresses) of others who feel passionately about these issues and are ready
to take action. Have those with email addresses subscribe to Food Bytes,
our free electronic newsletter, by sending an email to:
with the simple message:
Have natural food retail stores, coops, community restaurants, and
farmers markets contact the SOS campaign by telephone, fax, or email to set
up an in-store leaflet and SOS "ballot box" display. Encourage coops and
businesses to use these displays so that consumers can write official
comment letters to the USDA and their legislators while they are shopping
for organic foods.
Send a letter, fax, or email to the USDA (to the address and docket
number listed below) demanding that they maintain strict organic standards
by explicitly prohibiting the unacceptable agricultural practices listed in
this Alert. Demand also that they allow private and state organic
certification bodies to maintain stricter organic standards than those the
USDA requires. Remind the USDA that this is a basic issue of free speech
and of consumers' right to choose. Ask your organic food store to provide
materials so that consumers can write comment letters while they are
shopping. If you live outside the United States, tell the USDA that USA
organic foods produced under sub-standard certification and labeling
provisions, such as they are now proposing, will not be welcome or
marketable in your country.
Make copies of your letter to the USDA and send them to your legislators
and local media. Follow up with a telephone call to their local district
offices. Tell them that, as a constituent, you want them to put their
position on organic standards in writing so that this can be forwarded on
to the USDA.
Don't forget to contact natural food outlets, consumer coops, farmers
markets, environmental and public interest non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) and community-oriented restaurants in your area and get them
involved in the SOS campaign.
Letters to the USDA should be sent to:
USDA--National Organic Standards
Docket # TMD-94-00-2
Address: USDA, AMS, Room 4007-S, AgStop 0275, P.O. Box 96456 Washington,
Fax: (Include Docket Number) 202-690-4632
email: see USDA web site http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop
Whose Organic Standards?: USDA'S New Proposed Regulations Are Unacceptable
An Op-Ed Piece on the USDA's 12/16/97 Proposed National Organic Food
Ronnie Cummins, National Director, Pure Food Campaign/SOS (Save Organic
Watch out what you ask for, you just might get it. Since 1990, the natural
foods industry has been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to
establish new federal rules to define "organic" food, rules which
supposedly will promote consumer demand and expand the number of organic
farms. Now, in a remarkable turnabout, the rules proposed by the USDA on
December 16 threaten the very credibility and future of the organic and
natural foods industry.
At stake in finalizing the new "organic" standards is the fastest growing
and most profitable segment of the food market. The U.S. organic food
industry has grown from $78 million in 1980 to an estimated $4.2 billion
this year, and is expanding by nearly 20 percent each year. The proposed
rules by the USDA degrade current standards, open the door for large
agribusiness companies, processors, and supermarket chains to enter and
dominate the organic food market, and preempt natural food consumers,
independent retailers, and farmers involvement in future rules regarding
The nervous shiver down the spine of the organic foods industry comes from
the USDA's lack of specific prohibitions for genetically engineered foods,
irradiated foods, intensive confinement of farm animals, rendered animal
parts in feed, and the use of toxic sewage sludge spread over farmlands and
To allow these controversial practices, the new USDA rules run directly
counter to the practices of organic farmers around the country and in
Europe. Currently the labeling of organic food is dictated by varying, but
relatively strict, standards used by 17 states and 33 private certifying
agencies. None of these agencies currently allow genetic engineering,
irradiation, intensive confinement, rendered animal protein, or toxic
sewage sludge within their definitions of organic food. Besides lowering
pre-existing standards, the new USDA rules would deny states and localities
from setting tougher organic food standards, without first being approved
by the USDA. In this regard industry experts are quite sceptical than the
USDA would allow stricter standards, since strict organic standards would
represent an implicit, if not explicit, condemnation of current
conventional agricultural practices.
In fact, the USDA's rules are a direct affront to the National Organics
Standards Board (NOSB)--composed of industry representatives, farmers,
environmentalists and food processors. The NOSB, established by the Organic
Foods Production Act in 1990, made recommendations to the USDA that
explicitly banned genetically engineered foods, irradiation, farming with
sewage sludge, and intensive confinement factory farm type animal husbandry
By proposing these watered-down standards, the USDA opens the door for
several powerful industries to enter the organic foods market. The proposed
rules will undergo a 90-120 day comment period, giving the waste disposal,
biotech, and nuclear industries an opportunity to lobby hard to expand the
market for their products. Organic food consumers will have an equal
opportunity to voice their opinions during the comment period, and given
their outrage over the proposed standards, they are likely to generate
large numbers of comments.
The USDA is caught in a familiar predicament given the agency's dual role.
On the one hand it is set up ostensibly to protect consumers by ensuring a
safe food supply and guarantee the economic livelihood of America's
farmers, the majority of whom continue to operate small and medium-sized
farms. On the other hand, USDA also sees as its role to promote the
industrialization and globalization of American agriculture--which means
working closely with large agribusiness, chemical, and biotechnology
corporations. The natural food industry, with its small stores, small
family farms, and discriminating consumers, has begun to pose a direct
threat to the market share of large-scale agribusiness. Therefore
agribusiness would like nothing more than to infiltrate this burgeoning
The strength of the organic food market can be seen in the growing number
of organic sections appearing in major supermarket chains. A quarter of all
shoppers buy "natural" or organic foods in supermarkets at least once a
week, according to the Organic Trade Association. In a national poll last
February 54% of American consumers told industry pollsters that their
preference was for organic production.
In addition to the weak rules on controversial practices, the proposed
standards solidify the power of the USDA for future decisions on organics.
The Organics Food Production Act intended for any additions to the organic
rules, such as the inclusion of new synthetic or genetically engineered
crops, to go through the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB). But the
Preamble to the new rules and the USDA's redefinition of substances such as
sewage sludge as "natural" rather than "synthetic" seem to open the door
for the USDA to make the final decision on new additions on its own. In
addition government officials (under NAFTA regulations the Labor
Department) would have unilateral power to declare the "equivalency" of
organic food standards in other nations such as Mexico. Given the lack of
current regulations and enforcement in Mexico over agricultural production,
this could mean a flood of supposedly "organic" products crossing the
border which would undermine American organic farmers operating under
stricter standards and higher production costs.
On the surface this seems to be a debate over semantics. What is organic
food? But dig deeper and you will find the livelihood of 12,000 or so
organic farmers nationwide, scores of thousands of natural food businesses
and employees, and the right for several million U.S. consumers to buy
organic food that reflects natural farming and production methods. After
the 90-120 day comment period, let's hope the USDA understands that these
standards need to retain the integrity of the word organic. If they don't,
perhaps we're better off without any federal organic standards at all.