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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."

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.