New USDA Label Will Clearly Identify 'Organic' Foods

Dec. 20, 2000 (Washington) -- In about 18 months, organic foods will get a "USDA Organic" label similar to the USDA label that now appears on eggs and meat.

Federal regulators Wednesday issued the first national standards for growing, producing, and labeling "organic" foods. The rules cap a decade-long debate over what defines organic vs. non-organic foods. The rules will replace any existing state-based standards regulating organic agriculture.

Now consumers who want to buy organic food "can do so with the confidence of knowing exactly what it is they're buying," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said Wednesday at a press conference.

Under the new federal standards, which will take effect in about 18 months, USDA agents will certify foods that contains at least 95% organically grown ingredients as "organic". Foods whose contents are more than 70% organic will be labeled as "containing organic ingredients."

To be considered organic, the food's ingredients may not be treated with radiation or grown using sewage sludge. The food also must not contain any genetically modified ingredients. And in terms of livestock, the rules forbid the use of antibiotics or of hormones, typically used to promote growth.

But the standards do permit the use of certain natural pesticides and other manufactured agents. In each case, the USDA explains, the agency tried to rule based on the preference of consumers.

However, the standards were not developed to create a superior product with respect to safety, quality, or nutrition, the agency says. In fact, according to the USDA, the label was created simply to bolster both domestic and foreign confidence in the U.S. organic food industry.

"Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgement about nutrition or quality," said Glickman.

Foods that meet the new standards will bear the "USDA Organic" seal.

According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the rules will disqualify a certain number of so-called organic products currently trying to capitalize on the almost $8 billion a year market. "Some of those products that are sold as organic will no longer be labeled organic," Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of OTA, told WebMD in an earlier interview.

"For the first time, there will be consistent standards and labeling for all organic products marketed in the United States. No longer will there be questions concerning what 'organic' stands for, or whether the process has been certified," DiMatteo added Wednesday in a prepared statement.

Still, not everyone will find the new USDA label to be all that appetizing. Traditional food makers and the biotech industry have spent considerable time, money, and effort protesting the creation of this new label because they fear consumers will view the label as a mark of quality.

The USDA label lends support to those seeking to belittle foods derived from other, demonstrably safe production methods such as genetic engineering, explained the Biotechnology Industry Organization in an earlier statement.

Nevertheless, the rules demonstrate that Americans really do have a choice, says the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), the world's largest association of food, beverage, and consumer product makers.

"We just want the USDA to now monitor consumers' response to ensure that the label isn't misleading," GMA spokesman Peter Clearly tells WebMD. "We support the establishment of standards for what qualifies as organic, but are concerned that consumers might see the label as an endorsement," he explains.

The rules, which the USDA was required to develop by a 1990 congressional law, were first proposed in 1997. The USDA withdrew that proposal after receiving several hundred thousand public comments, mostly criticizing the proposed label and the USDA's definition of organic foods.

The final rules are now one of Glickman's last acts as head of the USDA. Speaking at a recent meeting, Glickman said the final rules represented the end of a heated debate that helped mark his six years in office.