Undermining the Organic Standards?

I understand that the organic standards have been changed and that so-called organic foods may really not be organic. What’s the story?

– June 8, 2004

The story is a bit complex but appears to have a happy ending – for the time being. Here’s what happened: last month (May 2004) the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued "clarifications" of some regulations governing production of organic foods. These new guidelines would have permitted organic farmers to treat dairy cows with certain antibiotics and other drugs, use pesticides that might contain toxic ingredients, and feed farm animals with non-organic fish meal. Can you believe this?

On May 26, following criticism from consumer and organic groups that the new guidelines weakened the standards by which foods can be certified as organic, Agriculture Secretary Ann Venemen rescinded them. Below, a brief rundown of what they were and why they were so controversial:  

  • Use of antibiotics, growth hormones, or any other drugs to treat dairy cows in organic herds would be allowed as long as their milk isn’t sold for a year after treatment. Strictly speaking, animals treated with antibiotics and other drugs should be removed from organic herds.
  • Use of fish meal as a protein supplement for animals on organic farms. While fish are considered organic, some may contain PCBs and mercury, and the meal may contain preservatives. The law establishing organic standards requires that animals on organic farms eat only organic feed.
  • Use of pesticides containing "inert" chemicals that may be toxic, specifically those on two lists established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pesticide ingredients on the EPA’s "List Two" have a high probability of toxicity; those on "List Three" are of unknown toxicity. (List One includes chemicals known to be toxic, while List Four ingredients cause little or no harm and, in the past, were the only ones allowed in organic pesticides.) The USDA change would have allowed use of pesticides ?- including those containing chemicals found on Lists Two and Three – so long as farmers (and the government contractor who certifies that farmers are adhering to the organic standards) tried to find out if chemicals used were on List Two or Three – even if the information isn’t available. And it isn’t. Only pesticide manufacturers and the EPA know what inert ingredients are in pesticides. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose this information on their product labels, and the EPA isn’t permitted to divulge them.

In rescinding the guidelines, Secretary Veneman said that the USDA would work with officials from the Organic Standards Board (an advisory council) to clarify the organic standards. Stay tuned. It looks as if consumers will have to be constantly vigilant to keep our government from weakening or gutting the organic standards act.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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