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Food For Thought

Organic Food Fight

Politicians are playing chicken with the new rules

by Dashka Slater

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and now everyone wants to be organic. It’s the nation’s fastest-growing farming sector, increasing by 20 percent a year. The organic meat business is expanding even faster; Petaluma Poultry in Northern California says sales of its Rosie organic chickens are up by 25 percent a year.

Unfortunately, the burgeoning new sector is attracting a lot of wannabes who like the premium prices they can charge but don’t want to go to all the trouble. Attempts to water down the organic standards started back in 1998, before they were even established: The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed conferring official organic status on products treated with antibiotics, sewer sludge, and irradiation. More than 300,000 angry consumers complained, and the department backed off. The final standards, which took effect last October, are some of the strictest in the world, requiring animals to be raised without antibiotics or hormones, on feed free from animal products and grown without pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers. That’s what consumers expect to get when they plunk down an extra buck per pound for an organic fryer.

Then this February, only hours before the 3,000-page, $397 billion Omnibus Appropriations Bill reached the House floor for a vote, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) slipped in a single sentence allowing meat and poultry to be labeled organic even if the animals weren’t raised on organic feed. The rider came at the behest of Georgia poultry producer (and generous campaign contributor) Fieldale Farms. Fieldale had a word with the aptly named Representative Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), Deal had a word with Hastert, and the deed was done.

Such stealth operations are business as usual on Capitol Hill, but what happened next isn’t. Within days of the rider’s passage, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Representative Sam Farr (D-Calif.) introduced bills to reverse it, quickly garnering an impressive number of cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. Even USDA secretary Ann Veneman spoke out in favor of ensuring "the integrity of the organic label placed on consumer products." There were also more than 15,000 calls, letters, and e-mails from outraged organic consumers. "The swift and strong groundswell of opposition to that rider has been an eye-opener for many in Washington," says Leahy.

The uproar was a testament to the new clout of the organic sector, which has gone from backyard gardening to an $11 billion industry. Supporters of Leahy’s and Farr’s bills included heavyweights like General Mills, which owns the organic labels Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm, and poultry giant Tyson Foods, which is launching its own line of organic birds. "There are big producers going organic and playing by the rules," explains Farr. "It doesn’t help them to have a competitor not playing by the rules." Petaluma Poultry’s sales and marketing director, Randy Duranceau, fumes: "It’s as if General Motors manufactured Chevys but put the Cadillac symbol on them."

Lots of money rides on the integrity of the organic label. Strict standards help convince consumers that the product is worth the price. They also help expand markets overseas, where anxiety about mad cow disease and genetically modified comestibles have fueled an appetite for unadulterated foods. (Even McDonald’s hamburger outlets in the United Kingdom now sell organic milk and free-range eggs.)

By mid-April, Deal’s rider had been repealed. Ironically, however, the repeal provision was paired with a rider by Alaska senators Ted Stevens (R) and Lisa Murkowski (R) that would allow seafood caught in the wild to be labeled organic, even though no one knows what it fed on. When the regulations are drafted, the organic industry promises to mobilize again to defeat them. At some point, Duranceau hopes, Congress will learn to leave well enough alone. "The organic community is intelligent, passionate, and organized," he says. "They’re not going to let these things happen."

Dashka Slater writes frequently for Sierra.

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