What's Up With the USDA

June 2004

The USDA doesn't have the greatest track record over the past decades, and its recent flip-flop in its regulations for organic products has caused significant concern and criticism.

New "organic" rules

In April 2004, the USDA passed new directives, which some believe negated the meaning of the "organic" label.

USDA-certified organic farms could use fertilizers and pesticides that contain "unknown" ingredients, and USDA-certified organic dairy cows could have been administered antibiotics or fed non-organic fishmeal – made with synthetic preservatives or contaminated by mercury and PCBs (a known carcinogen).

The USDA also announced they would no longer regulate non-agricultural products labeled as "organic". Any seafood, body care products, pet foods, fertilizer, and clothing, no matter how they are produced, could be labeled "organic".

Widespread criticism

Understandably, this caused an uproar with consumers, environmentalists and politicians, including the Consumers Union and the National Organic Standards Board, the group that helped create the USDA organic program in the first place. This also made front page news in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In addition to degrading the integrity of organics, the USDA was criticized for changing policies without involving public participation or advice from its Standards Board, both supposed legal requirements.

The vice chair of the Standards Board said the directives "certainly weaken[ed] the [organic] regulations" and an advisor for the FDA said the "new directive ma[de] a mockery of organic standards."

Retracted rules

After thousands of people petitioned and contacted the USDA office, the Secretary of Agriculture conceded and retracted the controversial directives as of May 2004. (More...)

In the beginning of June, however, the USDA reinstated one of the new directives it just retracted. Companies can again market their non-agricultural products and seafood as "organic" - regardless of how they are produced.

At this point, the USDA simply lacks the resources to develop or enforce organic standards for non-agricultural products.

Ongoing debate

Even while drafting the organic standards, the USDA's initial proposal contained provisions not recommended by the National Organic Standards Board and was severely rejected.

Consumers and members of the organic industry sent over 275,000 responses to the USDA on their proposed National Organic Standards, requesting stricter standards for organic farmers. This marked the first time in history an industry fought for stricter standards for themselves.

Because the organic industry touches so many different groups (organic farms, conventional farms, environmentalists, consumers and big businesses), it has been extremely difficult to devise a solution that completely satisfies all parties.

Speak up!

With the ongoing controversy about organics, it's still valuable that you voice your concerns.

As the Consumer's Union has stated: "The USDA still believes that they originally 'had it right' regarding their recommendation to rewrite organic standards, and that the public outcry may have been the result of a 'communication problem'... As the agency renews efforts to dilute the current organic standards, it is critical that USDA hears the consumer voice loud and clear."

To retain the integrity of organics and its environmental impact, we should stay abreast of changes with the USDA and familiarize ourselves with other organic certifications.
More about:
Regulations & Politics
Taking Action!
Feature Section Archives