Congress Messes with Organic

(Beyond Pesticides, Technical Report, December 2005) The Organic Trade Association (OTA) moved its amendment to allow synthetic ingredients in the highest category of organically labeled food through Congress in November 2005. The maneuver, spirited through on an agriculture appropriations bill without a public hearing by the Republican staff, left opponents fuming and shaking their heads over the process and outcome. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a supporter of organic, said on the Senate floor November 2 before the full Senate passed the bill, “[B]ehind closed doors and without a single debate, the Organic Foods Production Act was amended at the behest of large food processors without the benefit of the organic community reaching a compromise. To rush provisions into the law that have not been properly vetted, that fail to close loopholes, and that do not reflect a consensus, only undermines the integrity of the National Organic Program.” The House passed the measure the previous week on October 28 as part of the Conference Report on H.R. 2744, Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006. The measure passed despite an outpouring of over 325,000 consumer letters and emails asking members of Congress to preserve the no-synthetics clause.

Earlier this summer, public input derailed the OTA amendment from being included in the Senate bill, only to be included in the conference bill without debate. Beyond Pesticides wrote to Congress before the vote: “Attempts to amend OFPA through the appropriations process or other legislative vehicles in the face of deep substantive disagreements will cause severe divisiveness and undermine consumer confidence and trust in the organic label and market. Instead, Congress should allow the regulatory process to move forward as ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Harvey v. USDA and afford consumers and other stakeholders the opportunity to participate in an open and public discussion that enables fair and informed decision making. . . Harvey v. USDA has brought into sharp focus key issues regarding the use of synthetic substances in processed foods labeled organic. The case puts a spotlight on USDA’s failure to adhere to a central legal standard and principle in the Act. The Act establishes processed food labeled organic (displaying the USDA organic seal) as 100 percent natural, of which 95 percent must be organic ingredients and up to five percent may be non-organic when organic is not available. Other categories of organic labeling, including the ‘made with organic’ label, allow for the use of synthetic ingredients.”

Senator Feingold (D-WI) said on the Senate floor, “The strength of the organic certification and labeling program through USDA has been the ability of organic consumers, farmers, processors, and retailers to work together to create a seal that everyone has confidence in. The Harvey court decision challenged some of the procedures in place for organic farming and food processing. This situation should have caused the organic community to again come together, openly discuss the issues, and more than likely propose consensus changes to the law to both ensure the reputation of the organic label and allow for the continued record growth of the organic market. . . [B]ackroom deals in the dead of night are not the way to go and have the potential for undermining confidence in the entire organic program.” “The real losers today are America’s organic consumers who do not expect food labeled as ‘organic’ to contain artificial (or synthetic) ingredients,” says Dr. Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union. As organizations regroup to determine next steps, USDA will have to issue new regulations to implement the new law. Stay tuned for more analysis and action.