Reprinted from The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No. 4, July/Aug 1998

Organic Vs "Organic":The Corruption of a Label

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) did its best to quietly set new legally-binding national standards for organic food late last year. The agency previewed the proposed federal regulations to the press on the Wednesday before the national holiday Thanksgiving, playing down any potential controversy. Then the recommended rules were made public on December 16, just prior to the Christmas holidays. The rules themselves were released in the form of 600 pages of legal speak ˜ so dense and technical as to be unintelligible to the average citizen. Although a number of food activists had predicted months earlier that the USDA's organic regulations would likely try to waterdown the current tougher standards upheld by the nation's 40 non-governmental and state organic certifiers, as the lengthy document began to be decoded, shockwaves spread through the organic industry.

Deeply embedded in the government's proposed Organic Rule are over 60 major "deal breakers" that threaten to undermine the entire philosophy, integrity, and longstanding practices of the organic community. Organic industry analysts were stunned that the USDA and the Clinton administration disregarded nearly every policy proposal made in the previous five years by the official advisory board in charge of making recommendations ˜ the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Among the more controversial proposals were to allow under the mandatory "USDA Organic" label the use of genetic engineering, nuclear irradiation, toxic sewage sludge, intensive confinement of farm animals and a host of other conventional factory farm agricultural practices. If these rules become institutionalized as federal law, the United States will gain the dubious distinction of having the lowest organic standards in the world.

Moreover, the rules as presently written will give the USDA a monopoly over the word "organic" and make it illegal for organic certifiers and producers to set higher standards than the minimum standards dictated by the USDA. As groups such as the Pure Food Campaign and Sustain pointed out, the December 16 regulations would constitute nothing less than an "unfriendly takeover" of the nation's rapidly-growing $4 billion organic food industry.

The numerous loopholes and provisions in the rules would open the door for large-scale industrial agribusiness to overwhelm an alternative food system largely composed of small farmers, retailers and processors.

As the word began to spread in late December and early January on the USDA's proposed rules, consumers responded en masse. SOS (Save Organic Standards) and Keep Organic Organic posters were distributed to consumer co-ops, farmers' markets and natural food stores throughout the country exhorting consumers to tell the USDA to withdraw the organic rules. The internet became a major organizing tool as tens of thousands submitted comments through the USDA's website. Hundreds of protestors, both farmers and consumers, rallied and at times disrupted USDA public hearings on the organic rules in Texas, Iowa, Washington and New Jersey. A steady flow of critical letters, faxes and emails became a torrent. Before the storm subsided at the end of official public comment period on April 30, the USDA had been hammered with an unprecedented 220,000 comments, 99 per cent of which roundly denounced the agency's new definitions and rules.

USDA head Dan Glickman admitted to the St. Louis Post Dispatch on March 26, that "This is probably the largest public response to an [Agriculture Department] rule in modern history." In fact the response was 20 times greater than anything ever before proposed by the USDA.

In the same St. Louis Dispatch article, a spokeswoman for the powerhouse National Food Processors Association (NFPA), Regina Hildwine, categorized consumer and industry critics of the proposed rules as "true believers who seem to be on a holy war" against the USDA. In a news story published on March 23 by Reuters, Hildwine emphasized that the USDA's proposed rules (vocally supported by three of the Clinton-Gore administration's favourite trade associations ˜ the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the NFPA, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization) have nothing to do with the issues or concerns of consumers. As Hildwine put it, "Organic does not mean safer. Organic does not mean healthier."

On May 8, Glickman announced that, although the USDA will not completely withdraw the proposed rules, the agency will carefully consider the comments received and then resubmit a revised Final Rule later this year or in 1999. In what appears to be a significant turnaround from previous comments, Glickman stated: "Biotechnology, irradiation and biosolids ... neither fit current organic practices nor meet current consumer expectations about organics, as the comments made clear." Analysts warn however that Glickman's ban on biotech, sludge and irradiation under the organic label is not necessarily a permanent ban, as evidenced by the emphasis in his May 8 statement on "current" organic practices and "current" consumer expectations. Shortly before the end of the comment period, the nation's biotechnology leader, Monsanto, advised the USDA to back off temporarily on trying to include gene-altered products under the organic label for a three-year period and then to try again.

What's at Stake? A Booming $4 Billion Industry
The massive grassroots backlash against the USDA's proposed organic rules highlights the recent dramatic growth of the organic food sector. Several million US households (out of a total of 90 million) now buy significant amounts of organic food every week from one of several thousand retail outlets. The organic food industry has grown to over $4.2 billion a year, expanding 20 per cent a year since 1990. In a national poll published in February 1997, conducted on behalf of the Swiss-based biotech and pharmaceutical giant Novartis, 54 per cent of American consumers said they would like to see "organic" food production become the dominant form of agriculture in the United States.

Even many conventional supermarket chains have been forced by consumer demand to start offering at least limited lines of organic foods in their stores. According to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, 75 per cent of food industry senior management believe that organic and natural foods are becoming an important trend.

Why is organic food consumption growing so rapidly, not only in the US, but in the rest of the industrialized world? Of course the answer is the increasing concern over food safety. The handful of transnational food, chemical and biotech corporations who dominate world agriculture from field to plate are increasingly offering food that is artificial, contaminated, and adulterated. Large-scale agribusiness views the organic market as a genuine threat to maximizing profits. Their global game plan is to drive several billion "inefficient" small and medium-sized farmers and peasants from the land, replace these family farmers with high-tech chemical and biotech food factories, and then serve up these factory farm food consumables to a mass of indoctrinated and corporatized consumers.

For a number of years this game plan seemed to be moving ahead on schedule. But a body of mounting public health concerns, an apparently unending series of well-publicized food scares, food-poisoning epidemics, and finally mad cow disease have profoundly affected consumer consciousness and altered market conditions.

As the majority of consumers and concerned parents now understand, cheap industrial food has hidden costs. Not only does factory farming destroy the environment, impoverish rural communities, inflict unnecessary cruelty on farm animals, and contaminate the water supply, but the end product itself is inevitably contaminated. Routinely contained in nearly every bite or swallow of non-organic industrial food are antibiotics and other animal drug residues, pathogens, faeces, chemicals, toxic sludge, rendered animal protein, genetically modified organisms, chemical additives, irradiation-derived radiolytic chemical by-products, and a host of other hazardous allergens and toxins. The BSE catastrophe in Europe is only the most dramatic example of an increasing global trend: consumers are more and more anxious about the food they are eating and serving to their families.

Americans suffer from a literal epidemic of food poisoning (over 80 million cases per year), immune and reproductive system disorders, obesity, heart disease, and food˜ and water-related cancers and diseases. Over 80 per cent of American consumers now consistently express concern over pesticide, hormone and antibiotic residues; faecal or bacterial contamination; as well as the health hazards posed by genetically engineered products such as the Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST).

Millions more are concerned about animal cruelty, environmental hazards, and adverse economic impacts on small family farmers of the giant beef feedlots, corporate hog farms, and massive chicken and poultry operations. For these reasons, millions of US consumers are turning toward organic food. A recent survey commissioned by Environmental Media Services in Washington, D.C. found that: one-third of Americans say they buy organic food regularly, while 40 per cent buy organic at least a few times a year; and 85 per cent would support national organic standards, but oppose labelling as "organic" food that which has been genetically modified, grown with toxic sludge, irradiated or treated with antibiotics.

Nothing New from the USDA
The USDA's recent attempts to degrade current high organic standards ˜ standards upheld by the nation's 40 private and state organic certification bodies ˜ are consistent with the agency's track record as a staunch defender of factory farm style food production. For decades the USDA has vigorously promoted the latest technologies developed by large-scale agribusiness and biotechnology corporations, from DDT and animal antibiotics, to genetically engineered hormones, seeds and crops. Several billion pounds of toxic chemicals are applied to American farmlands and pastures annually, while an estimated 24 million acres were planted with transgenic or genetically-altered crops in 1997 ˜ up from 6 million acres in 1996.

Pressure on the USDA to weaken pre-existing organic standards has come from several government agencies as well as powerful trade associations such as the National Food Processors Association, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Advocates for the immediate or eventual inclusion of genetic engineering and other factory farm technologies has come from the US Trade Representative office as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Science and Technology's presidential advisory committee includes biotech giant Monsanto's senior vice-president for public policy, Virginia Weldon.

Lobbying to allow residential and industrial sewage sludge to pass as fertilizer under the USDA organic label has come from the nation's major toxic polluters as well as the Environmental Protection Agency itself, which has long been a strong advocate of disposing of what they euphemistically call "biosolids" by dumping them ˜ often covertly or semicovertly ˜ on farmlands and pastures. In a similar vein, the Food and Drug Administration and the nuclear industry have been pushing for wholesale nuclear irradiation of meat and other foods. And finally, the Clinton administration has pandered to their friends and donors in the biotech industry by enthusiastically approving every genetically engineered product presented to it (the total is now 33) for commercialization.

The USDA until recently was reluctant to get involved with organic food ˜ including efforts in 1990 to stop the US Congress from passing the Organic Foods Production Act. The discomfort the agency feels is largely due to political and economic considerations. At a public hearing earlier this year, a USDA official privately admitted to activists that the Clinton administration is faced with the awkward political dilemma of excluding agricultural practices under the organic label which are routinely used in conventional agricultural practices. How could Washington claim that chemical-intensive agriculture, intensive confinement of farm animals and genetic engineering are perfectly safe, and then permanently ban these practices under the federal organic label? How could the White House try to force controversial foods on the European market, for example hormone-tainted beef, using the hammer of the World Trade Organization, and then not allow these same foods to enjoy the USDA organic seal of approval?

This public relations and trade dilemma was revealed in a confidential memo reported in Mother Jones magazine in April 1998. The USDA memo said: "Few if any existing [organic] standards permit GMOs [genetically modified organisms], and their inclusion could affect the export of US Grown organic product. However, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Foreign Agricultural Service [USDA divisions] are concerned that our trading partners will point to a USDA organic standard that excludes GMOs as evidence of the department's concern about the safety of bioengineered commodities."

The National Organics Standards Board (NOSB), mandated by Congress in 1990 to set up a "National List" of substances allowed in organic food, was relatively free of these political dilemmas. They passed on to the USDA tough standards which had the full support of the organic food industry and consumer groups.

Now, as part of their proposed rules, the USDA is trying to usurp control from the NOSB. The 1990 law says that the USDA cannot add any substances to the list without NOSB approval. But the USDA internal memo published in Mother Jones describes the agency's plans to take away the statutory power of the NOSB to decide what is synthetic or natural, and what is allowed or prohibited under the organic label. The USDA claims that since the word "list" is written at times in lowercase letters in the 1990 statutes, the Law then allows the USDA to add substances to the list without the board's approval. White House lawyers also propose that the NOSB's statutory control over the National List is possibly "unconstitutional". But legal experts, as well as the authors of the 1990 National Organic Food Production (OFPA), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), deny the USDA's interpretation of the 1990 law.

The USDA has decided to ignore or twist the NOSB's recommendations in the following fundamental ways:
 The proposed rules allow the use of antibiotics in meat and poultry production. Recently, scientists around the world have voiced their concerns that farmers using antibiotics in chickens, cattle and fruit orchards are creating drug-resistent bacteria and pathogens that end up as dangerous residues in the food people eat. In response, there is mounting pressure on the US to impose stiff new requirements on the makers of new animal antibiotics.
 The proposed rules lower traditional organic standards for the intensive confinement of farm animals, use of non-organic animal feed and other factory farm practices. In doing so, the USDA is opening up the organic market for the US's meat, poultry and dairy cartels, all of whom stand to gain billions of dollars in extra profits under relaxed or degraded rules for organic meat and animal products.
 The leaked USDA memo published in Mother Jones also makes it clear that Washington bureaucrats consider it a "Hot Issue" to prevent the nation's several dozen non-governmental private organic certifiers from certifying and labelling organic products using standards higher than the USDA minimum. As the leaked memo makes clear, America's food giants not only want relaxed rules so that their products can be labelled as "USDA Organic" without having to make any substantial changes in their production methods, but they also want to eliminate any competition in the marketplace from smaller organic producers who are using genuine organic production methods.
 The rules not only give USDA bureaucrats a legally-binding monopoly over the word "organic" but also empower the USDA to regulate or even prohibit eco-labels of any kind. As the proposed rules state: "the labelling or market information that directly or indirectly imply organic production and handling practices" may be prohibited. Examples of prohibited labelling would include: "produced without synthetic pesticides", "pesticide-free farm", "No growth stimulants administered", "raised without antibiotics", "humanely raised" and "ecologically produced".

Another important consideration is how degraded organic rules will affect international standards and trade. The USDA rule allows for a number of materials and practices that contradict existing international norms for organic production and processing as set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) Accreditation Programme, Codex guidelines and European Union regulations. Examples of these include the intensive confinement of livestock, the use of toxic inert ingredients in allowed pesticides, highly soluble fertilizers, no requirement for soil-building crop rotations in grain production, and lower percentages of organic ingredients in multi-ingredient products.

"What's happening is that the USDA is attempting to shift the whole organic concept from a process-based approach (emphasizing the way something is grown) to a product, or performance-based, approach (emphasizing measurable properties of the final product). This meshes very well with current US Trade policy, and it dovetails very well with the government's opposition to mandatory labelling for genetically engineered products," states Michael Sligh, programme director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), and founding chairman of the NOSB.

Organic Takeover and Consumers Right to Know
Of course the USDA plan to mis-label organic foods and criminalize dissent is just part of a larger political strategy designed to restrict consumer choice and force controversial agricultural practices on an unwilling public. In order to facilitate this, labels need to be either prohibited or rendered meaningless. But fortunately opposition is mounting, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in organic sales, the one brand of food products that consumers know they can trust.

But opposition to the US's "no-labelling" policies has begun to manifest itself on other fronts as well. On May 27, in Washington, D.C a coalition of scientists, health professionals, religious leaders and chefs, led by attorneys from the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), joined plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) policy of allowing genetically engineered foods on the market without mandatory safety testing or labelling. The plaintiffs in the suit are challenging the marketing of 33 different genetically engineered foods which include potatoes, tomatoes, soy, corn, squash and many other fruits and vegetables to which a variety of new genes from different species have been added.

"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 ICTA, and co-counsel on the case. "By failing to require testing and labelling of genetically engineered foods, the agency has made consumers unknowing guinea-pigs for potentially harmful, unregulated food substances."

On the same day the lawsuit was announced, in Ottawa, Canada, a broad cross-section of environmental and consumer public interest organizations rallied and held press conferences to pressure the GATT Codex Alimentarius Commission to require mandatory labelling of all genetically engineered foods on a global basis. In front of a bank of TV cameras and news reporters outside the Codex meeting hall, Consumers International was joined by representatives of Greenpeace International, the Council of Canadians and the Pure Food Campaign. Speakers from each of these organizations stressed that unlabelled, untested biotech foods pose significant health and environmental threats to the public and constitute a major global roadblock to the development of sustainable and organic agricultural practices.

In a dramatic and well-received speech inside the Codex meeting hall, Julian Edwards, Director General of Consumers International (CI), a network of 235 consumer organizations in 109 nations, presented evidence to the Codex assembly that consumers internationally have a fundamental right to mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods, "to know what's in their food and how it has been produced." As Edwards explained, "One of the ironies of this issue is the contrast between the enthusiasm of food producers to claim that their biologically engineered products are different and unique when they seek to patent them and their similar enthusiasm for claiming that they are just the same as other foods when asked to label them .. .. The argument that ordinary people are not ˜ or should not be ˜ concerned about this issue is completely wrong."

Organic Standards: What's the USDA's Next Move?
How the USDA and powerful corporate interests will ultimately respond to the massive public rejection of their proposed organic rules remains to be seen. Most informed sources in Washington believe that the USDA will try to push through a compromised Final Rule late this year or in 1999 which will lower standards somewhat while trying to avoid setting off the kind of massive backlash that resulted from their more blatant December 1997 proposals. As long as the USDA has a legal monopoly on the word organic, as long as it's a civil crime for non-USDA organic certifiers and producers to use alternative higher standards and labels, the transnational corporations can afford to go more slowly, gradually degrading the standards further, over a period of several years, or even a decade. The Final Rule, the USDA tell us, will be a compromise rule, something we must swallow for the good of the economy and the bottom line of the food sector.

The flaw in this plan is that millions of organic consumers ˜ as well as certifiers, farmers and retailers ˜ are now so disillusioned and distrustful of the USDA that they are no longer willing to accept any compromises at all.

In an important tactical move, 27 leading non-USDA organic certifiers recently agreed to unite and adopt common high standards which basically conform with the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board and international IFOAM requirements. These high standards are not only what 90 per cent of consumers want, this is what they demand.

The organic certifiers' Independent Accreditation system will provide a national and internationally-recognized set of standards and labels which will serve as an alternative to the forthcoming "USDA Organic" federal regulations.

Consumer organizations, organic farmers and natural food retailers (at least the small and medium-sized ones) are preparing for a protracted battle with the USDA. Any Final Rule published by the USDA which gives Washington bureaucrats a monopoly on the word "organic" is totally unacceptable. Any Final Rule which prohibits non-governmental organic certifiers and state government certifiers from labelling according to standards higher than the minimum standards of the USDA represents a violation of American consumers' Constitutional rights to free speech. Any Final Rule that prohibits producers and certifiers from utilizing eco-labels that even imply organic production will be vehemently opposed. As the proposed USDA rules read now, Monsanto, Tyson, Perdue, Cargill, Kraft, Kroger, Safeway, McDonald's ˜ any of America's food giants ˜ will have the legal option to sue any farmer, co-op, retailer, processor or handler in court for certifying or labelling, or even implying in their advertising, that their products are genuinely 'organic', and exceed the world's lowest minimum organic requirements, those of the USDA. This is not just a bad law, this is Food Fascism.

A Unique Opportunity for Food Activists
On June 5 a number of leading organic activists in the US announced the formation of "a new nationwide activist organization for organic consumers", the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). The OCA is capitalizing on the increased consumer awareness and activism resulting from the USDA's proposed rules. The OCA will be working through natural food co-ops, retail stores, farmers' markets, and other community organizations (holistic health practitioners, community restaurants, public interest organizations, vegetarian and animal protection groups, community media, etc.) to build a formidable political force.

While the USDA's degraded rules clearly pose a direct threat to organic food in the US and ultimately worldwide, they have also provided a unique opportunity for food activists. Rarely have the lines been more clearly drawn. The national organic standards controversy in the US has provided consumers and activists with an opportunity to truly challenge the transnational food corporations, mobilize a mass base, and win.

Ben Lilliston & Ronnie Cummins

Further information is available from:

Ben Lilliston, Sustain: The Environmental Information Group, 920 N. Franklin, Suite 206, Chicago, IL 60610, 312-951-8999. E-mail:
Ronnie Cummins, Pure Food Campaign/SOS (Save Organic Standards), 860 Hwy 61, Little Marais, Mn. 55614,
Tel: 218-226-4164, Fax: 218-226-4157. E-mail:

 To subscribe to the free electronic newsletter, Food Bytes, send an e-mail to: with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action
 The full text of Julian Edwards' speech is available on the internet at:

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