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Biotech foods not 'organic' under new rules
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 food varied from state to state.

While the new rules create organic standards for the first time on a national level, they are not a federal government endorsement of organic foods -- such as crops produced without synthetic chemicals, or animals raised without antibiotics or other drugs.

"The organic classification is not a judgment about the quality or safety of any product. Organic is about how it is produced. It is a process issue," said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman

"Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean it is ... superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food. All foods in this country must meet the same high standard of safety regardless of their classification," he said at a Washington news conference.

What the rules say
The proposals, covering fruit, vegetables and meat, say that:

Foods labeled "100-percent organic" must contain only organically produced raw or processed products.

Foods labeled as "organic" must be at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).

Foods that contain 50-95 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic (specific ingredients)" and list up to three such ingredients on the main label.

Foods that contain less than 50 percent organic ingredients can not use the word "organic" on the main label, only on a side label that lists all ingredients.

Proposals rewritten after criticism
In late 1997, the Agriculture Department first proposed national guidelines for labeling and marketing organic food and clothing but was deluged with nearly 300,000 comments -- most of them negative.

Environmentalists, farmers, consumers, the entire Vermont Legislature and celebrities, including musician Willie Nelson, wrote comments, mostly in opposition to the regulations as drafted.

Critics objected to putting the "organic" label on foods grown from genetically modified seeds, treated by disease-killing irradiation and fertilized by sewage sludge recycled by municipal waste plants.

Agriculture Department officials spent the last two years reviewing the letters and have rewritten guidelines to finally govern what exactly can be labeled as "organic."

This time around, biotechnology, sewage sludge and irradiation will not be considered organic.

Dr. Val Giddings, of the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization trade group, denounced the proposals. "This proposed rule will deny organic farmers the benefit of the newest varieties (of genetically modified foods) in a way that will come back to haunt them," he said.

"Foods derived from crops through biotechnology have been subjected to more analysis for safety than any other foods in the history of humanity," Giddings told CNN. "They are demonstrably at least as safe as and, in some cases, safer than the (conventional) foods we enjoy today."

No national standard
The organic food industry has been growing at a rate of 20 percent annually over the past decade. Sales from about 12,000 organic farmers nationwide are expected to reach $6 billion this year, according to the Organic Trade Association.

But the industry said it needed federal standards to maintain the sales surge.

Currently, organic standards vary among state and private sector certifiers. For example, an orange labeled "organic" in one state may be raised completely differently than an "organic" orange from another state.

The industry has said that without guidelines, there is nothing to back up the claim that a product is organic, raising questions among consumers about whether an organic label really means anything -- and whether it is worth paying more for food designated as such.

Critics of the organic industry say the rules could lead consumers into thinking organic products are safer or more nutritious than conventional food. There is no evidence that is true, said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis.

"I hope they will understand what organic means and make this an informed choice," she said.

Costly for organic farmers?
Some organic farmers, many of whom run small operations and sell close to home, have expressed concern that the new guidelines will impose a costly system on them.

"I am concerned that the charges connected with this new system will be so high that small farmers won't be able to afford it," said Elizabeth Henderson, an organic vegetable farmer in Wayne County, New York.

Organic industry representatives say that this time they are confident their voices have been heard, largely after the Agriculture Department hired someone who had been critical of the initial USDA proposal to head up the task of rewriting the government organic standards.

Kathleen Merrigan was hired by the USDA in June from the Henry Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. After the initial rules came out, Merrigan wrote a 100-page, single-spaced response to the USDA on behalf of the Institute, most of it pointing out flaws in the agency's proposals.

And, when Congress passed a bill a decade ago that ordered the Agriculture Department to create rules for organic food and clothing that would be enforced nationwide, Merrigan was working for Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who was head of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Merrigan drafted the legislation for the organic rules.

The rules will be published in the Federal register on Wednesday, the beginning of a 90-day period for public comment.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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