Organic’s only problem is USDA


What would you call a hugely successful USDA program whose biggest threat is the USDA?

You’d call it the National Organic Program, which, again in April and May, fended off attempts by USDA to undermine the hallmark standards that have propelled organic food sales upward by an average of 19 percent per year since 1997.

With $10.4 billion in 2003 retail sales, triple that of just six years ago, according to the Organic Trade Association, organic foods sales are growing five to 10 times faster than overall U.S. food sales.

Moreover, 40 percent of 2003 organic food sales occurred not in low rent storefronts manned by Birkenstock-shod ex-hippies listening to whale music, but in soft-rocking, miles-of-aisles club stores, supermarkets and mass merchandisers.

In short, organic food is no longer a market backwater for greenie weenies; it’s Mom-and-Dad mainstream with 2 percent of all U.S. food sales.

Just ask Mr. Kroger, Mr. Safeway and Mr. Sam.

It doesn’t get it. But don’t ask USDA because America’s farm agency just doesn’t get it – yet.

In April, USDA issued “clarifications” for organic certifiers who qualify producers to use USDA’s “certified organic” label.

The changes permitted some antibiotic and pesticide use in organic produce, allowed certain nonorganic feed to be fed to animals, and widened the definition of organic when labeling personal care products, cosmetics and fish.

As in previous attempts to weaken organic standards – one would have allowed municipal sludge to be used as organic fertilizer, another to feed commercial and biotech grain to organic poultry – USDA was shocked by the public outcry the proposed regs ignited.

Understanding. USDA’s Ag Marketing Service, the agency charged with National Organic Program oversight, “just doesn’t seem to understand organics or the people who support it,” says Jim Riddle, a Minnesota organic inspector and vice chairman of USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

“Organic growers,” he explains, “came to the government in 1990 asking for regulations. They wanted strict rules so consumers could trust the organic label.

“And every time there’s been controversy since then, it’s because the government has tried to weaken the rules.”

‘Open rift.’ The April rule flap, however, did more than put USDA on the organic hot seat again; it spotlighted an open rift between USDA and the standards board, all volunteers appointed by Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman or her predecessors.

By law, USDA cannot alter most program rules without first getting the approval of the NOSB.

That makes the NOSB a long-toothed regulatory tiger, a rare commodity in today’s commodity-driven, almost-anything-goes USDA.

“It was set up that way in 1990,” explains Dave Carter, NOSB’s former chairman and current member, “because organic growers are unique in American agriculture: They want more regulation, not less.

“To them, organic food is not about tools and technology; it’s about management and philosophy. Sometimes USDA can’t envision that.”

Clearer picture. The picture may have gotten clearer May 27 when NOSB’s Riddle published an open letter to Veneman that was highly critical of USDA’s rule meddling.

In it, Riddle accused USDA of “bad process” in skirting the board’s statutory role in rule making and the department’s award of a no-bid contract to the board’s only technical adviser whose work he characterized as “inadequate” and “frustrating.”

The day before Riddle’s letter went public, Veneman – as in the sludge and feed spat – abruptly rescinded the contentious rules.

She also promised that USDA would “work with the National Organic Advisory Board and the industry to determine the best solutions to the issues that have been raised.”

Pledge. Veneman further surprised NOSB members with a 10-minute, drop-in visit at board’s June 9 meeting in Washington to repeat her pledge. “It was a good faith effort to get USDA back on track with the board,” suggests Carter.

Riddle hopes so because “the two biggest dangers to the National Organic Program are weak standards and fraud. The biggest problem so far, though, has been protecting the program from the government.”

USDA should butt out.

After all, organic producers have built a $10-billion-a-year-and-growing market not with USDA’s help, but in spite of it.

(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at: Read his columns online at

© 2004 ag comm


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.