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For organic food producers, the proposal would prohibit the "routine" confinement of animals and would require that animals such as cows have access to outdoor pasture.

Glickman told reporters, "The organic classification is not a judgment about the quality or safety of any product. Organic is about how it is produced. It is a process issue. Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean that it is any safer or more healthy than conventional foods."

But interest groups, such as traditional food makers and biotech firms, find the new proposal unappetizing, fearing the "organic" seal may be construed as a quality or safety marker for food without genetically engineered ingredients.

In a statement, Biotechnology Industry Organization official Val Giddings raised the fear that the USDA may be "lend[ing] its support to those who seek to vilify foods derived from other, demonstrably safe and valuable production methods." He argued to the consumer benefits of genetically engineered foods: "Biotechnology allows us to produce foods that contain more proteins, vitamins and minerals and less fat."

Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, tells WebMD, "The proposal further proves that consumers really do have a choice in the United States."

And Stephen Barrett, MD, a self-appointed quackery watchdog, writes on his web site, "Organic certification, no matter what the rules, will not protect consumers. [Organic foods] will just cost more and may lessen consumer confidence in the safety of 'ordinary' foods."

Nevertheless, the organic industry may have gotten the better of this particular argument for now. Sansoni tells WebMD that he expects that the final rules would be similar to those announced Tuesday. "I would be surprised if they changed much," he says.

After a 90-day comment period on the proposal, the USDA plans to issue a final rule. According to the agency, the new standards would be effective 18 months from the date the final rule is published.

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