The USDA intends to publish a revised set of legally-binding federal regulations on organic food by the end of the summer, and preliminary indications are that these proposed federal laws will once again threaten the integrity of the organic label. Now is a critical time for our efforts to reach out to as many like-minded people and stores as possible. When the next rule is announced, we need to be poised and ready.
What is "Certified Organic?"
One of the central goals in fighting the USDA's first proposed rule on organic food was to maintain the integrity of "organic." But exactly what is the current system that ensures the integrity of organic food? Who is making sure that the food is organic? And what is the difference between the different organic labels?
Currently, organic farm and production facilities are certified by more than 40 different organic certification agencies nationwide. Eleven of the certification programs are state-run, while approximately 30 are private or non-governmental certification agencies. The precise specifications for qualifying as organic vary slightly among the different certification agencies. However, they are nearly all currently at a high standard that consumers can trust. Food is certified organic only when the certification agency is satisfied that the farm is meeting its standards for organic food production -, i.e., not using toxic pesticides, genetically-engineered crops or inputs, hormones, antibiotics etc. If food doesn't say "certified organic" - then it has not been officially approved by these organic certification bodies. However, thousands of small farmers in the US do produce genuine organic products, even if they can't afford to pay certification fees.
The state and non-governmental certification system was considered imperfect ten years ago by some in the organic industry. The large number of different certification bodies was the impetus for the 1990 Organic Food Production Act (OFPA). The thinking was those different certification bodies with different labels was becoming confusing for consumers, and becoming a barrier to growth for the organic industry. A uniform federal standard would simplify things, and ensure quality, or so the argument went.
But as the sticky process of creating national organic rules has evolved, a rift has developed between the current certifiers and the federal government. The role of the USDA's National Organic Program in accrediting certifiers, various fees certifiers might have to pay, and the enforcement powers of the certifiers, are all issues yet to be finalized. A particular point of contention is who will have the power to decertify a farm or facility if they are doing something wrong. Currently, each of the 40 plus certifiers can pull the certification of that facility. The USDA has argued that pulling a facility's certification is the exclusive right of the government. Both sides are working on a compromise, but this issue continues to be a point of contention for certifiers.
Health professionals are alarmed at the development of several new infections which have developed a resistance to antibiotics. Drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, gonorrhea and pneumocococcal infections have become frighteningly common in recent years. And a growing number of germs are developing resistance to the antibiotic of last resort, vancomycin. Bacteria naturally evolve to avoid antibiotics. But resistance has speeded up in the last decade, largely because they are being over-used. Public health officials speculate that 60 million unnecessary prescriptions are written each year for childhood viral infections that do not respond to antibiotics.
But another important concern is the heavy use of antibiotics in livestock's feed. For more than 40 years, ranchers and growers have been feeding low levels of penicillin, tetracycline, and other antibiotics to poultry, cattle, and pigs to speed the animals' growth and cut costs. Of the 50 million pounds of antibiotics produced every year in the U.S., estimates are that about 40 percent is given to animals. Unless the meat, eggs and dairy products you buy at your local supermarket are labeled "organic," you can be fairly certain the animal your food came from was fed an abundance of antibiotics.
The mass use of antibiotics in animal feed has sped up the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in animals, according to many scientists. These mutant strains of bacteria, such as E-coli 0157, can infect humans who handle raw meat and poultry, or eat undercooked food.
Last year, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that salmonella bacteria in food were resistant to five of medicine's strongest antibiotics. And this spring, the New England Journal of Medicine will publish a study by Minnesota health researchers which finds that the incidence of bacteria resistant to the newest and strongest available antibiotic, called fluoroquinolones, increased from 1.3% to 10.2% since 1992. Scientists from the University of Maryland recently reported in the British medical journal Lancet, that bacteria resistant to the most powerful antibiotics used to treat infections in people have been found in chicken feed.
Last year, the European Union banned the use of antibiotic growth promoters in livestock if those same antibiotics are used to treat disease in humans. In the past two years, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called for ending the use of several antibiotics for growth promotion in livestock.
In March, a coalition of 41 health and consumer groups led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a petition and called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pass a EU-type ban in the U.S. For more information on CSPI's petition and what you can do, go to CSPI's website at:
Label Genetically Engineered Foods!
Since 1993, the U.S. government has allowed 36 biotech foods and crops onto the market, with absolutely no labeling or special pre-market safety testing required. Some are whole foods, and many are included as ingredients in processed food. They are all unlabeled. And right now, the only way to ensure you aren't eating genetically engineered food is to buy organically.
There are several important efforts in the US to give consumers better information about what they are buying and eating. And just as importantly, require extensive safety testing of these genetically engineered crops before they enter the market. In May of last year, attorneys at the Center for Food Safety filed a comprehensive lawsuit on behalf of consumers, scientists, environmentalists, chefs, and religious groups to force the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require mandatory labeling and adequate safety testing of all genetically engineered foods and crops.
"The FDA has placed the interests of a handful of biotechnology companies ahead of their responsibility to protect public health," stated Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the CFS, and co-counsel on the case. "By failing to require testing and labeling of genetically engineered foods, the agency has made consumers unknowing guinea pigs for potentially harmful, unregulated food substances."
The CFS charges that current FDA and USDA labeling policies not only ignore public surveys that show 90% of American consumers want mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, but also blatantly contradict federal laws, such as the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which mandate the labeling of "materially altered" foods such as those which have been subjected to nuclear irradiation. In addition, the CFS lawsuit calls attention to the fact that current "no labeling" policies constitute a violation of many Americans' spiritual and religious beliefs.
The biotech industry has vigorously fought against any attempts at labeling genetically engineered food. Just as mandatory labeling has hurt the commercialization of irradiated food in the United States, biotech labeling would almost certainly radically reduce the profitability of gene foods or even drive controversial products such as rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone), Roundup Ready Soybeans, and Bt-spliced corn and potatoes from the marketplace. As the head of Asgrow seed company (a Monsanto subsidiary) candidly admitted to the press several years ago: "Labeling is the key issue. If you put a label on genetically engineered food, you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it."
To support CFS's lawsuit, write the Food and Drug Administration at: Jane Henney Commissioner, F.D.A., 5600 Fishers Lane, Room 1471, Rockville, MD 20857 Cite (U.S. District Court for D.C. Docket No. 98-CV-1300
COMMENTS: If you have some free time, you might want to consider sending your notes of concern to the appropriate sites listed above. Your voice does matter and may contribute to influencing this important area of organic certification.