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March 7, 2000 (Washington) -- The USDA seal that goes on meat and eggs may soon be on 'organic' foods as well. The nation's first national standards for such foods will be finalized by the end of the year, Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman told reporters Tuesday.
Glickman said, "The organic label is about giving consumers a choice and a definition of organic that takes the guesswork out the process. Consumers know what they're buying and farmers know what's expected of them." The standards would not affect grocery stores and restaurants.
In a major break from an initial proposal the USDA issued in 1997, this proposal sets forth that food labeled as organic or as having organic ingredients may not contain any genetically modified ingredients. Moreover, none of its ingredients may be irradiated, and it may not be produced using sewage sludge.
According to the USDA, "There is no current scientific evidence" that these practices present "unacceptable risks to the environment or human health." But in each case, it says it is responding to the overwhelming preference of consumers.
Organic foods would not, however, be pesticide-free under the rules. The proposal allows natural pesticides and certain manufactured agents that the government believes consumers accept. Several hundred thousand public comments, almost universally negative, followed the USDA's 1997 proposal.
"Everyone is in high spirits," Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, told reporters. "The rules will give consumers the confidence that they've been asking for years." And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., appeared with Glickman to praise the proposal.
The organic food industry is rapidly growing. DiMatteo tells WebMD that it is a $6 billion retail market, with growth of over 20% in the last year. She says that the proposal may change things: "Some of those products that are sold as organic will no longer be labeled organic."
Under the USDA proposal, agents would certify those organic food operations that produced edibles with at least 95% organic content. Foods with at least 50% organic ingredients would be labeled as containing "organic ingredients."
The proposal includes a national list of specific substances that can and cannot be used in the production of organic food. It would allow, for example, baking soda -- not considered organic -- to constitute up to 5% of the ingredients, as long as the rest of the product was organic.
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."