Biotech foods not 'organic' under new
New federal guidelines proposed
March 7, 2000
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Foods that are genetically modified or
irradiated would not be considered "organic"
under federal guidelines proposed Tuesday
and expected to take effect later this year.
The Agriculture Department revised its proposal
following a flood of negative comments following
its first attempt at setting a national standard
for organic foods.
Until now, rules governing organic
from state to state.
While the new rules create organic
for the first time on a national level,
are not a federal government endorsement
of organic foods -- such as crops produced
without synthetic chemicals, or animals
without antibiotics or other drugs.
"The organic classification is
judgment about the quality or safety
product. Organic is about how it is
It is a process issue," said Agriculture
Secretary Dan Glickman
"Just because something is labeled
organic does not mean it is ... superior,
safer or more healthy than conventional
All foods in this country must meet
high standard of safety regardless
classification," he said at a
What the rules say
The proposals, covering fruit, vegetables
and meat, say that:
• Foods labeled "100-percent organic"
must contain only organically produced
or processed products.
• Foods labeled as "organic"
be at least 95 percent organically
ingredients (excluding water and salt).
• Foods that contain 50-95 percent
ingredients can use the phrase "made
with organic (specific ingredients)"
and list up to three such ingredients
the main label.
• Foods that contain less than 50 percent
organic ingredients can not use the
"organic" on the main label,
on a side label that lists all ingredients.
Proposals rewritten after criticism
In late 1997, the Agriculture Department
first proposed national guidelines
and marketing organic food and clothing
was deluged with nearly 300,000 comments
-- most of them negative.
Environmentalists, farmers, consumers,
entire Vermont Legislature and celebrities,
including musician Willie Nelson, wrote
mostly in opposition to the regulations
Critics objected to putting the "organic"
label on foods grown from genetically
seeds, treated by disease-killing irradiation
and fertilized by sewage sludge recycled
by municipal waste plants.
Agriculture Department officials spent
last two years reviewing the letters
have rewritten guidelines to finally
what exactly can be labeled as "organic."
This time around, biotechnology, sewage
and irradiation will not be considered
Dr. Val Giddings, of the Washington-based
Biotechnology Industry Organization
group, denounced the proposals. "This
proposed rule will deny organic farmers
benefit of the newest varieties (of
modified foods) in a way that will
to haunt them," he said.
"Foods derived from crops through
have been subjected to more analysis
safety than any other foods in the
of humanity," Giddings told CNN.
are demonstrably at least as safe as
in some cases, safer than the (conventional)
foods we enjoy today."
No national standard
The organic food industry has been
at a rate of 20 percent annually over
past decade. Sales from about 12,000
farmers nationwide are expected to
$6 billion this year, according to
But the industry said it needed federal
to maintain the sales surge.
Currently, organic standards vary among
and private sector certifiers. For
an orange labeled "organic"
one state may be raised completely
than an "organic" orange
The industry has said that without
there is nothing to back up the claim
a product is organic, raising questions
consumers about whether an organic
really means anything -- and whether
worth paying more for food designated
Critics of the organic industry say
could lead consumers into thinking
products are safer or more nutritious
conventional food. There is no evidence
is true, said Christine Bruhn, director
the Center for Consumer Research at
"I hope they will understand what
means and make this an informed choice,"
Costly for organic farmers?
Some organic farmers, many of whom
operations and sell close to home,
concern that the new guidelines will
a costly system on them.
"I am concerned that the charges
with this new system will be so high
small farmers won't be able to afford
said Elizabeth Henderson, an organic
farmer in Wayne County, New York.
Organic industry representatives say
this time they are confident their
have been heard, largely after the
Department hired someone who had been
of the initial USDA proposal to head
task of rewriting the government organic
Kathleen Merrigan was hired by the
June from the Henry Wallace Institute
Alternative Agriculture. After the
rules came out, Merrigan wrote a 100-page,
single-spaced response to the USDA
of the Institute, most of it pointing
flaws in the agency's proposals.
And, when Congress passed a bill a
ago that ordered the Agriculture Department
to create rules for organic food and
that would be enforced nationwide,
was working for Vermont Democratic
Leahy, who was head of the Senate Agriculture
Committee. Merrigan drafted the legislation
for the organic rules.
The rules will be published in the
register on Wednesday, the beginning
90-day period for public comment.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed
to this report.