Organic Consumers Association

True to its roots Organic food industry wins fight on U.S. standards

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer - (Published April 18, 2003)
The nation's fast-growing organic food industry flexed newfound
political muscle this week, successfully blocking efforts that would
have weakened the new national organic standards.

The outcry by farmers, consumers and industry groups persuaded Congress
to quickly close a loophole in organic rules that would have allowed
livestock producers to get around 100-percent organic feed requirements.

"This was democracy in action, people saying, 'Don't mess with my food,'
" said Brian Leahy, president of Santa Cruz-based California Certified
Organic Farmers, one of the largest organic certification associations
in the nation.

It was a political coming-of-age for the organics industry, which is
projected to reach $13 billion in sales this year -- double the sales of
four years ago.

Organic products still account for less than 2 percent of the nation's
food sales, and organically certified land is only 0.3 percent of the
nation's farmland.

However, the number of acres certified as organic surged by 74 percent
between 1997 to 2001, according to a study released last week by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

Total certified acreage topped 2.3 million acres, including 163,000 in
California. The state leads the nation in organic crop acreage but ranks
fourth after accounting for organic pastureland.

That kind of growth -- and the backing of vocal consumer groups -- came
in handy when an eleventh-hour rider was tacked onto the 2003 spending
bill in February. Written for the benefit of a Georgia poultry farm, it
would have allowed farmers to label meat and dairy products as organic
without using 100 percent organic feed if the price of organic feed was
more than twice that of conventional feed.

"It was just such a sleazy way of going about it because consumers
wouldn't know what they were buying," said Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman
for the Organic Trade Association, a Massachusetts-based group of 1,200
organic growers, shippers and processors. "In organics, you do not
decide what to do based on cost."

Simon Harris, spokesman for Organic Consumers Association in San
Francisco, called the bill rider the first real attempt by outside
interests to weaken the national organic standards implemented in
October 2002.

"It's clear by what took place that the organic community is starting to
have some political clout," said Harris, whose organization issued an
e-mail alert about the issue to 200,000 members.

He estimates at least 20,000 of them voiced concerns to Congress -- as
did an untold number of shoppers who saw notices at cash registers in
natural foods stores across the country.

"The organic consumer group is a loud crowd," said Amy Kremen, co-author
of USDA's most recent analysis of the nation's organic farms. "(The
campaign) was everywhere."

There was plenty of support to repeal the Section 771 rider in
California, which leads the nation with just more than 1,000 organic
operations in 2001.

"Section 771 made a mockery of organic standards," said Bryce Lundberg,
director of organic certification for Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale.
"If this standards change stays on the books, what's next?"

As the largest organic rice processor in the country, Lundberg feared
the erosion of consumer confidence once shoppers realized organic labels
weren't strictly applied. Lundberg started calling politicians and
garnering support from industry groups such as the California Rice

Even though less than 3 percent of California rice is organic, the
commission "was able to recognize the real breach of proper process and
standards developed for organic farming," Lundberg said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, were among the
leaders of bipartisan efforts to repeal Section 771 by amending a
supplemental spending bill that President Bush signed Wednesday.
"Consumers need to know that the 'USDA Organic' label means what it
says," Leahy said.

Farr took another step to boost the industry's profile on April 10 with
the creation of the Congressional Organic Caucus to address new organic
standards and other industry issues.

Trend lines suggest the caucus will have a growing constituency in
coming years as the organics industry continues moving into mainstream
culture and maintains faster growth than the conventional food sector.

The once-niche organic foods crossed a threshold in 2000, when more
organic products were sold in supermarkets than in any other venue,
including natural foods outlets and farmers markets.

Organic sales nationwide have grown at least 20 percent annually since
1990, driven by demand for organic dairy products and a boom in
certified livestock. The number of beef cows, milk cows, hogs, pigs and
sheep hit 71,000 in 2001, nearly a threefold increase from 1997, said
the most recent USDA report.

Increases in organic cattle fueled the rapid expansion of certified
organic acreage in rangeland states such as Montana, Colorado and Texas,
which surpass California in overall organic acreage.

California, however, continues to dominate the nation's organic produce
industry, with 40,000 acres of organic vegetables and 29,000 acres of
organic fruit in 2001. In both cases, California has more certified
organic acreage than the rest of the states combined.

There's no sign of stagnant demand yet. Supermarkets continue cautiously
introducing new organic products and natural foods stores are "going
gangbusters," said Karen Klonsky, agricultural economist at the
University of California, Davis.

At Foothill Organic Growers in Newcastle, owner Jack Hertel has
witnessed firsthand the demand that drove a 60 percent increase in
California's certified organic acreage between 1997 and 2001.

After getting his first customer eight years ago, Hertel's cooperative
of organic family farms delivers produce to 450 families a week in the
greater Sacramento region.

"There are so many people out there who are really wanting fresh local
organic produce," he said. "We almost can't keep up."


About the Writer

The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or

For more information: The most recent USDA report on the growth of the
organic industry is at

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