WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Organic food retailers and several industry trade associations said last week they will fight any attempts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would officially label irradiated, genetically altered or sludge-treated foods as "organic."
The USDA last week proposed national standards for labeling organic products, but organics industry executives said those standards run afoul of the traditional industry definition of organic.
Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, said it will protest inclusion of irradiation, biotechnology and sludge use in the national organics standard.
"There is some surprise that these [processes] are still being discussed," said Margaret Wittenberg, a company spokeswoman and a member of the National Organics Standards Board here, which has set industry standards for organic farming and counseled the USDA on its proposed blueprint.
"In general, we're glad the standards are out. Now we have something concrete to build on. But at Whole Foods, we don't think sludge, irradiation and biotechnology have a place in organic farming."
Mary Beth Lewis, chief financial officer of Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., said the company does not carry food that has been irradiated, genetically altered or fertilized with sludge.
She also said the chain would likely participate in corporate and consumer opposition to any federal organics standard that strays from the industry's generally accepted practices.
"Organics for us has always meant 'free from the use of pesticides and chemicals in the growing process,' " Lewis said.
The Food Marketing Institute here said it is studying the USDA's organics standards proposal and declined to comment on the controversy. Nancy Yanish, director of the FMI's agricultural relations, told SN, "We're delighted the USDA published the proposed rule. We feel having an organics standard will help consumers make decisions when they purchase organics."
The USDA's proposals are part of 400 pages of draft regulations to govern when produce, dairy products and meat can carry a federal "Meets USDA Organic Requirements" label. The regulations -- seven years in the making -- are open for public comment for 90 days. The agency hopes to have final regulations in place for the spring 1999 crop.
The Organic Foods Protection Act, first passed in 1990, was designed to end consumer confusion by replacing the patchwork of varying state regulations defining organics. Despite the lack of a national standard, the organic foods market is thriving -- estimated to be growing 20% annually. Industry officials view a uniform federal standard as further spurring growth.
Sales of organic foods now total about $3.5 billion, industry sources estimate.
But while praising the USDA for finally issuing proposed organics regulations, organics industry officials fear the standards they have helped to draft could run contrary to their strict tenets of what it means to be organic.
The organics industry largely views the effects of irradiation and biotechnology on foods to be untested. The use of sludge, often containing metals and industrial wastes, is considered by many to be a source of crop contamination.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said these three processes are still open for discussion for inclusion in the final regulations.
The USDA has not explained why these issues are still on the table, but the Clinton administration has publicly supported irradiation, bio-engineering and sludge as safe and necessary.
A spokesman for the National Food Processors Association here warned against including irradiation and biotechnology as part of an organics standard because any ensuing controversy could impede acceptance of the processes in the marketplace.
"Organics is an issue not of safety or quality, rather a standard of identity," the spokesman said. "Biotechnology promises more nutritious foods and irradiation safer foods. We wouldn't want the organics standard debate to impede progress of food safety and nutrition in the marketplace."
A spokesman for the International Frozen Food Association, McLean, Va., said the association supports irradiation, but its board will have to weigh whether to support irradiation being included in the organics standard.
However, the American Frozen Food Institute, McLean, Va., came out in favor of labeling biotechnologically derived foods as organic.
To gain a USDA organics seal of approval, the proposed regulations require that raw produce, meats and dairy products be 100% organic and that processed foods contain 95% organic ingredients. Processed foods with 50% to 95% organic content could be labeled organic as long as inorganic ingredients were disclosed on the label.