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USDA Pulls Directives that Threatened National Organic Standards
(Beyond Pesticides, May 28, 2004) At a news conference Wednesday USDA Secretary Ann Veneman announced that the agency is withdrawing its recent policy directives clarifying certain organic food production standards. The move comes amidst a rising tide of criticism from organic food producers, consumers and marketers who viewed the directives as a weakening of federal standards and an attack upon the integrity of organic agriculture.

"By rescinding recent National Organic Program 'clarifications' and directing the agency to work with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the organic industry, Secretary Veneman has taken a gigantic step toward reestablishing the public-private trust that went into developing U.S. national organic standards in the first place," said Katherine DiMatteo, OTA's executive director.

Farmers and consumer groups, who have been in conflict with the USDA over the past few years, over the implementation of rules governing organic agriculture, mobilized after the recent USDA guidance documents were published. These groups objected to provisions allowing for the use of antibiotics on dairy farms, organic pesticides that might also include toxic inert ingredients and allowing fish, pet food and other products to be labeled organic without third-party certification. Beyond Pesticides presented comments to NOSB at its Chicago meeting on April 28, 2004, citing that the directive undermined the law and congressional intent to keep harzardous inert ingredients out of materials used in organic production.

After making the announcement, Ms. Veneman indicated that she would ask agency staff to work with the National Organic Standards Board a group of organic food experts appointed by the Agricultural Secretary and the organic food industry for a resolution of the concerns that had been raised.

”Secretary Veneman has a wonderful opportunity, at this point, to overhaul the staff at the organic program. The directives that she is withdrawing are just symptomatic of a poisoned and adversarial relationship between the USDA and the organic community,” said Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute. Many agricultural observers are looking at how Ms. Veneman handles this crisis, reforms staff and makes new appointments to the National Organic Standards Board. “This will be the test, in this election year, to see whether the Bush administration is going to be friendly to this segment of agriculture, organics, which has helped so many family-scale farms survive.”

Organic food has been a rapidly growing bright spot in the agricultural economy, with sales expected to top $12 billion this year. Weakening organic standards could severely damage consumer interest and confidence in the organic food label.