Under the current rules, meat sold as organic must come from animals with access to pasture. Loophole alert! The animals did not have to be raised on pasture. The USDA now proposes to close the loophole as it applies to ruminant animals. This proposal is open for comment. If you want to see how such things are done, this one is an excellent example (it includes a detailed history of the regulations, among other useful things). USDA wrote this in response to more than 80,000 comments on the “announcement of proposed rulemaking.” Virtually all of these wanted organically raised ruminants to be grazing on pasture. The Federal Register notice is 24 pages of tiny type but my immediate take is that the USDA proposals are really good. Take a look and see what you think. I’m withholding final judgment until somebody does a decent summary so I don’t get bogged down in “We propose to remove the word “or” at the end of paragraph X and replacing the period at the end of paragraph Y with a semicolon.”
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Today’s question, from a college professor in California, has to do with maintaining the integrity of the standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program for defining foods as organic: “It seems to me that the non-organic food industry must love this chipping away at the underlying meaning of “organic”. I’m worried about whether these changes are going to negatively affect the future availability of organic foods in grocery stores — why would people want to pay the premium for organic if it’s not really? My question is: have you written on this topic? Are others who you can refer me to?
Here’s my response: I have indeed written about this topic, and it is an important one. In What to Eat, I discuss the chipping-away-at-organic issues in several places, most specifically in the section on “The Politics of Organics” on pages 42-44 (and see Endnotes for references). Organics are the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Because organic production methods constitute an explicit critique of methods used in conventional industrial agriculture, the producers of conventional foods–along with their friends in the USDA and Congress–would love to weaken the standards to make it cheaper for them to produce and market foods as organic.
The latest USDA proposal (Federal Register, May 15, 2007) is to allow non-organic substitutes to be used in foods certified as organic when organic substances are not available. For example, the USDA wants to allow non-organic beet juice to be used to color products certified as organic when organic beet juice color is not available. Is this a good idea? I doubt it.
Anyone concerned about this issue should be working hard to make sure the organic standards continue to mean that organic foods are really organic and the Certified Organic seal can be trusted. This means expressing your opinion to your congressional representatives, to the USDA, and to the National Organic Standards Board. The Organic Consumers Association is an excellent source of information about this issue and provides plenty of background information for taking action.