Federal Food Policy


s the rate of cancer continues
to escalate, and with an obesity epidemic in the United States,
people are turning toward healthier diets and lifestyles in hopes
of enhancing their longevity. Awareness about food’s nutritional
content is also on the rise—many people are concerned with
the quality and content of their food. As these interests have grown,
so has the organic food movement. Organics, as the general definition
puts it, are products that are not genetically modified, and are
developed without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or

In 1973, after the United States banned DDT, the underground organics
industry grew almost overnight. With growing awareness of what DDT
did to human and environmental health, consumers were growing wary
of the corporate agricultural industry. People flocked to the land
and planted crops on their own or joined food co-ops where they
could grow and trade products among a community of like-minded people.
The market soon reacted to this growing demand for organic foods
and by the 1990s companies that produced organics estimated sales
of more than $1 billion annually. 

Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990,
which was attached to the Farm Bill, establishing the initial framework
for National Organic Standards. OFPA mandated the formation of the
National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which was organized to
advise the secretary of Agriculture in setting the standards for
the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic
Program (NOP). NOSB based its recommendations on industry consensus
and organic advocates were pleased. The next step, however, was
a bit more cumbersome. Turning USDA’s organic standards into
rules and regulations took some intense lobbying. In October 2002
the USDA officially began labeling as “organic” products
with 95 percent organic content or higher. 

Today, attempting to define what the USDA considers organic is like
trying to figure out which lie George W. Bush told last. Since 2002
the USDA keeps changing its definition, so today’s products
labeled organic may not have been labeled the same in 2003. This
sort of wavering has been met with criticism from organic food advocates
who believe the USDA should stick to the standards it agreed to
in 1990. Others, mostly industry CEOs, still believe USDA’s
labeling is too stringent. And why wouldn’t they? 

“Certification is becoming big business,” writes Hilary
Chop for

Alternatives Journal.

“Accredited certification
agencies are becoming for-profit enterprises instead of farmer and
consumer run organizations. This raises the potential for conflict
of interests, particularly since farms pay the certifying agency
based on their acreage. If a mega-farm wants an exception from the
rules, it can be all too tempting for the enforcing officer who
receives a commission, to make allowances.”


in point: in 2002, shortly after the USDA announced its labeling
policy, a controversy bubbled over when an accredited USDA-certifier
allowed a Georgia chicken producer, Fieldale Chickens, to label
its products organic while only having to use 10 percent organic
feed instead of the 100 percent required under USDA guidelines.
Fieldale spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire a Washington
lobbyist to help change organic standards at the USDA. With the
help of the Georgia delegation in Congress, they were successful.

In April 2004, after intense lobbying efforts by agri-industry giants
like ConAgra and Monsanto, the USDA proposed new rules that would
have allowed USDA-certified organic farms to use fertilizers and
pesticides that contain “unknown” ingredients—rather,
ingredients that could not be identified by either the grower or
the inspector. Also on the butcher block were USDA-certified organic
dairy cows. Until 2004 organic certified cows could not be fed any
antibiotics or non-organic feed. That changed fast, as the desire
for organic products grew, so did awareness among the big-agriculture
folks who lobbied until they succeeded. Luckily, organic activists
didn’t back down. There was a public outcry and, in May 2004,
the USDA retracted their proposed changes. If they hadn’t reversed
their plea, USDA-certified cows could have been administered antibiotics
or fed non-organic fishmeal, made with synthetic preservatives and
potentially contaminated by mercury and PCBs. 

On December 13, 2005 the U.S. Senate passed the 2006 Appropriations
Bill, which further weakened labeling standards. Young dairy cows
can now be treated with antibiotics and fed genetically engineered
feed. Not only that, numerous synthetic food additives and processing
agents can now be used. In case of “emergency decrees,”
or a shortage of organic goods (shortage is determined by the USDA,
not the U.S. public), loopholes now exist in the federal statutes
that allow for the substitution of non-organic ingredients without
any public notification or oversight. The new changes are a result
of a recent fight over USDA standards that began heating up in 2002
when organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey of Maine filed a federal
lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allowing
products containing synthetic ingredients to be sold as “organic.”
Harvey contended that the USDA’s organic standards were ambiguous,
thereby undermining consumer organic goods and confidence in USDA

In January 2005 the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Harvey’s
favor. The court mandated that the USDA had one year to re-write
their regulations. It looked like a win for the organic community.
“The decision said that synthetic substances were not permitted
in any type of product labeled as organic,” Joe Mendelson,
legal director for the Center for Food Safety, told reporters after
the decision. Such products could not be labeled with the official
green USDA “organic” stamp of approval. 

But when big money is involved, justice won’t often prevail.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who had stood up for organic standards
in the past, inserted language in the Agriculture Appropriations
Bill of 2006 countering Mendelson. “The Harvey case could have
major impacts on the future of the organic industry, both for producers
and processors,” Leahy said. “That is why I added language
to the Senate bill instructing USDA to study the implications of
the decision and report back to Congress. I believe a deliberative
process to achieve consensus within the organic community would
have been more appropriate.” Leahy received over $32,000 from
agribusiness during the 2004 election cycle. 

amendment forces the U.S. Agriculture secretary to analyze, within
90 days of the bill’s passage, whether reinstating the organic
labeling standards set in 2002 “would adversely affect organic
farmers, organic food processors, and consumers.” The secretary
also has to analyze “issues regarding the use of synthetic
ingredients in processing and handling” certified organic products. 

The amendment had been opposed by many organic food growers, as
well as public health officials, environmental organizations, the
National Grocers Association, the National Organic Coalition, the
Rural Advancement Foundation, Beyond Pesticides, the National Campaign
for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Organic Consumers Association,
among others. 

This is where the Organic Trade Association (OTA) comes into the
picture. The OTA represents virtually all the companies hoping to
turn a profit in the organic foods market. According to the OTA’s
number crunching, had rules of the Harvey case gone into effect,
25 percent of organic manufacturers would have left the business,
which they estimated would account for almost $758 million in lost
sales per year. OTA also argued that 20 percent of organic farmers
would have had to abandon their farming methods. 

Not surprisingly, it was industry Goliaths like General Mills and
Dean Foods who, along with others, opposed the ruling. The entrance
of such big names into the organic market is a good indication that
organic foods have been corporatized. Examples of the corporate
influx include: 

  • McDonald’s restaurants in the Northeast will be carrying
    organic fair-trade coffee 

  • General Mills owns Cascadian Farms and the popular organic Muir
    Glen brand  

  • Kraft, which is owned by Phillip Morris, owns Boca, a popular
    soy burger company 

  • Dean Foods, the dairy giant, owns White Wave and Silk soymilks,
    as well as Horizon

    Organic milk 

As the organic food industry has matured, USDA standards have waned.
The result is that consumers can no longer be confident their foods
meet organic standards even if the USDA gives its green mark of

Frank is the author of

Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect
George W. Bush

(Common Courage Press).