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Organic Industry Gears up for a Fight

At first, I saw the U.S. organic industry pushing back against deregulation by USDA as a clear-cut issue.

The industry argues stringent regulations are what bring value to the USDA Organic brand, and the Organic Trade Association (OTA) notes it is worried deregulation will erode consumer trust in the U.S. organic industry, reported Southeast Farm Press (July 11). In recent months, shelved proposals have included those covering animal welfare and beekeeping. And as Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, simply put it, deregulation doesn’t make sense for an industry that wants it. That all sounded sensible enough to me.

But as I look further into this complex issue, I’m left with more questions than answers.

For many industries, including segments of agriculture, fewer regulations are seen as a benefit. By contrast, the organic industry sought out government oversight in the late 1980s and continues to press for updates to the regulations.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue pushed for deregulation in other parts of his agency and the federal government, reversing a decree that gave poultry producers more power to sue big processors and easing up on nutrition requirements for school lunches. When questioned by Bloomberg News at a Chicago conference on June 26, Perdue suggested that the animal-welfare proposal was a defensive reaction by small organic producers as bigger operations “figured out how they could comply with organic standards.” He noted that the organic proposals went beyond his agency’s mandate to ensure food safety and provide certification.

“Organic purity is one thing, but telling people how they can reach that I think overreached the ability of what the organic standards should be,” said Perdue, who isn’t affiliated with the poultry company.

Several longtime participants in the organic industry take issue with Perdue’s perspective, saying the Trump administration is accelerating a process that was already under way, as big corporations have sought to co-opt the marketing power but not the spirit of organic.

The organic industry is regulated by an arm of USDA called the National Organic Program. The 15-member advisory board makes recommendations about issues that include defining organic honey and determining whether certain nonorganic ingredients can be used in processed foods. Major changes to the organic regulations are approved infrequently, and the processes can be long and drawn out. Nonethless, the Bush and Obama administrations both successfully passed significant new organic rules.

In March, USDA withdrew the rule on the treatment of organic livestock and poultry. It sought to stiffen the outdoor-access requirements so organic hens spent time on soil, rather than on enclosed porches with concrete floors. Out of about 72,000 comments the agency received on a proposal to withdraw the livestock rule, at least 63,000 opposed the idea, according to USDA. The Trump administration pulled them anyway, saying they exceeded the department’s regulatory authority. Other opponents of the animal-welfare rule included farm trade groups and powerful U.S. senators.

In April, USDA rejected a recommendation to remove a seaweed derivative from a list of nonorganic ingredients allowed in organic foods. The department’s organic advisory board concluded that other, more acceptable ingredients were available to replace carrageenan. The next month, the agency pulled support for a proposed organic promotion and research program being pushed by the OTA, citing a lack of consensus, even though similar programs are already in place for pork, dairy and mangoes. It would’ve been financed by an assessment on certified organic producers and businesses.

But some manufacturers objected to removing carrageenan from the list, while some farmers opposed the research and promotion plan.

And in June, USDA published a list of other proposed changes to organic regulations that had been pulled in previous months, including tightened rules for replacing organic dairy cows.

All of the organic rules “now labeled as inactive were initiated before January 2017,” when the new administration took office, USDA told Bloomberg News. The dairy rule would have constrained options for farmers transitioning to organic, the agency said.

Some organic farmers have become so frustrated that they have come up with their own enhanced standards, called the Real Organic Project. They eventually plan to add a label to packages, in addition to the USDA’s organic seal.

“We’re not trying to undermine the National Organic Program,” said Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer and the group’s executive director. “We are trying to save it.”

In addition, OTA is testing ways to detect organic label fraud at select companies. While the association notes a degree of fraud is likely in any program, developing tighter standard recommendations for its broader membership, which includes companies like Danone, Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farms, is a priority for the group, reported Chicago Tribune (July 11).

While the “USDA Organic” label generally signifies a product is made with relatively minimal synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and that animals are raised according to certain guidelines, disputes over the rules and questions about adherence may raise doubts about whether the price is justified.

A federal audit in September found USDA was “unable to provide reasonable assurance” that required documents for imported organic grains were reviewed at domestic ports of entry. Massive shipments of the imported grains intended mostly for animal feed were wrongly labeled as organic, and practices by major organic dairy and egg producers were brought into question, reported The Washington Post last year.

Given these disagreements, the Real Organic Project hopes its label will take root. The label will indicate that additional rules were met, such as on living conditions for animals and excluding produce from hydroponic farming, which relies on water instead of soil.

As for guarding against organic label fraud, “I’m not going to try to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and say we don’t have work to do,” said OTA spokeswoman Gwendolyn Ward.

I think that statement can easily apply to the organic industry as a whole. Whatever your view on USDA’s deregulations, we can expect issues that we haven’t even thought of yet to complicate the issue even further.