WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture's release of proposed standards for labeling organically grown produce and meat has renewed debate between all-natural farming advocates and federal policy makers as to what the term "organic" should mean in the marketplace.
The USDA's proposed regulations governing when a product can be labeled organic were seven years in the making. When they were released earlier this month, organics advocates -- who had been advising USDA officials about the tenets of organic farming -- were taken aback that certain issues were left open for further discussion.
Specifically, the USDA is still weighing whether food that's been irradiated, produced using genetic engineering or fertilized with municipal sludge can still be labeled "organic."
All-natural farming advocates argue that irradiation to kill micro-organisms and genetic manipulation to create healthier plants or animals are unnatural processes.
Because sludge frequently contains metals and chemicals, it also runs contrary to the organic industry's view that food is healthier and the environment is better off without the presence of chemicals or treatments.
"We're concerned the federal government wants to lower the bar for organic standards, making them contrary to the long-established philosophy of holistic farming," said Kenneth McCormick, marketing co-ordinator with the California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz.
There are 11 states with standards governing organic foods and the federal standard, mandated by the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, is designed to create a uniform, national definition for organics. Food meeting the federal standard could carry a label certifying its USDA-approved organic status.
Irradiation, genetic engineering and sludge fertilizing are supported by the federal government and widely recognized as being safe by conventional farmers and processors of food.
Both the organics and conventional fresh-food industries are closely watching the debate over the organics standard. The $3.6 billion organic-food industry -- although comprising just 1% of U.S. food production -- is forecast to increase by 20% annually.
"At the moment, organics is of limited interest to our members," said Bill Roenigk, vice president of the National Broiler Council here, the trade group mostly representing major mainstream producers of poultry.
Roenigk estimated that about 0.5%, or 25 million pounds, of poultry consumed in the United States is raised using organic farming methods, which means that birds are fed grain that's been grown without pesticides or treated with hormones and antibiotics.
Ann Soli, manager of public affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association here, said her group isn't ready to weigh in on the organics debate. However, she said the cattle industry is glad Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has gone out of his way to say the proposed organics standards are only designed to bring uniformity to the industry.
"The secretary made it very clear it's not a safety issue. If beef is raised in a conventional manner, it's just as safe and we want to make sure it doesn't become a safety issue," she said. "At this point organics is still a niche market. Our bottom line philosophy is, 'More power to the consumer.' If they want organics, we're happy there are producers out there to answer the need."
Heather Flower, director of public relations at the Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif., said it seems that USDA officials, in giving irradiation a second look for possible inclusion in the organics standard, are focused on food-safety issues.
Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said the debate over whether the organics standard should include irradiation, biotechnology and sludge fertilizer isn't an issue of conventional vs. organics farmers. She said a federal organics standard will bring uniformity in labeling. "It's better for consumers," she said.
Edith Garrett, president of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, Alexandria, Va., said the continued debate over irradiation, biotechnology and sludge fertilizer being part of the organics standard shows these issues aren't clear-cut.
The USDA may also decide to include irradiation in the organics standard at a later date, after its acceptance in the marketplace has been tested, she said. "The USDA may have to set it aside and let the future unfold," Garrett said.