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Federal Food Policy
A s the rate of cancer continues to escalate, and with an obesity epidemic in the United States, people are turning toward healthier diets and lifestyles in hopes of enhancing their longevity. Awareness about food’s nutritional content is also on the rise—many people are concerned with the quality and content of their food. As these interests have grown, so has the organic food movement. Organics, as the general definition puts it, are products that are not genetically modified, and are developed without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or hormones.
In 1973, after the United States banned DDT, the underground organics industry grew almost overnight. With growing awareness of what DDT did to human and environmental health, consumers were growing wary of the corporate agricultural industry. People flocked to the land and planted crops on their own or joined food co-ops where they could grow and trade products among a community of like-minded people. The market soon reacted to this growing demand for organic foods and by the 1990s companies that produced organics estimated sales of more than $1 billion annually.
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, which was attached to the Farm Bill, establishing the initial framework for National Organic Standards. OFPA mandated the formation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which was organized to advise the secretary of Agriculture in setting the standards for the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP). NOSB based its recommendations on industry consensus and organic advocates were pleased. The next step, however, was a bit more cumbersome. Turning USDA’s organic standards into rules and regulations took some intense lobbying. In October 2002 the USDA officially began labeling as “organic” products with 95 percent organic content or higher.
Today, attempting to define what the USDA considers organic is like trying to figure out which lie George W. Bush told last. Since 2002 the USDA keeps changing its definition, so today’s products labeled organic may not have been labeled the same in 2003. This sort of wavering has been met with criticism from organic food advocates who believe the USDA should stick to the standards it agreed to in 1990. Others, mostly industry CEOs, still believe USDA’s labeling is too stringent. And why wouldn’t they?
“Certification is becoming big business,” writes Hilary Chop for Alternatives Journal. “Accredited certification agencies are becoming for-profit enterprises instead of farmer and consumer run organizations. This raises the potential for conflict of interests, particularly since farms pay the certifying agency based on their acreage. If a mega-farm wants an exception from the rules, it can be all too tempting for the enforcing officer who receives a commission, to make allowances.”
In April 2004, after intense lobbying efforts by agri-industry giants like ConAgra and Monsanto, the USDA proposed new rules that would have allowed USDA-certified organic farms to use fertilizers and pesticides that contain “unknown” ingredients—rather, ingredients that could not be identified by either the grower or the inspector. Also on the butcher block were USDA-certified organic dairy cows. Until 2004 organic certified cows could not be fed any antibiotics or non-organic feed. That changed fast, as the desire for organic products grew, so did awareness among the big-agriculture folks who lobbied until they succeeded. Luckily, organic activists didn’t back down. There was a public outcry and, in May 2004, the USDA retracted their proposed changes. If they hadn’t reversed their plea, USDA-certified cows could have been administered antibiotics or fed non-organic fishmeal, made with synthetic preservatives and potentially contaminated by mercury and PCBs.
On December 13, 2005 the U.S. Senate passed the 2006 Appropriations Bill, which further weakened labeling standards. Young dairy cows can now be treated with antibiotics and fed genetically engineered feed. Not only that, numerous synthetic food additives and processing agents can now be used. In case of “emergency decrees,” or a shortage of organic goods (shortage is determined by the USDA, not the U.S. public), loopholes now exist in the federal statutes that allow for the substitution of non-organic ingredients without any public notification or oversight. The new changes are a result of a recent fight over USDA standards that began heating up in 2002 when organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey of Maine filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allowing products containing synthetic ingredients to be sold as “organic.” Harvey contended that the USDA’s organic standards were ambiguous, thereby undermining consumer organic goods and confidence in USDA labels.
In January 2005 the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Harvey’s favor. The court mandated that the USDA had one year to re-write their regulations. It looked like a win for the organic community. “The decision said that synthetic substances were not permitted in any type of product labeled as organic,” Joe Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, told reporters after the decision. Such products could not be labeled with the official green USDA “organic” stamp of approval.
But when big money is involved, justice won’t often prevail. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who had stood up for organic standards in the past, inserted language in the Agriculture Appropriations Bill of 2006 countering Mendelson. “The Harvey case could have major impacts on the future of the organic industry, both for producers and processors,” Leahy said. “That is why I added language to the Senate bill instructing USDA to study the implications of the decision and report back to Congress. I believe a deliberative process to achieve consensus within the organic community would have been more appropriate.” Leahy received over $32,000 from agribusiness during the 2004 election cycle.
The amendment had been opposed by many organic food growers, as well as public health officials, environmental organizations, the National Grocers Association, the National Organic Coalition, the Rural Advancement Foundation, Beyond Pesticides, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Organic Consumers Association, among others.
This is where the Organic Trade Association (OTA) comes into the picture. The OTA represents virtually all the companies hoping to turn a profit in the organic foods market. According to the OTA’s number crunching, had rules of the Harvey case gone into effect, 25 percent of organic manufacturers would have left the business, which they estimated would account for almost $758 million in lost sales per year. OTA also argued that 20 percent of organic farmers would have had to abandon their farming methods.
Not surprisingly, it was industry Goliaths like General Mills and Dean Foods who, along with others, opposed the ruling. The entrance of such big names into the organic market is a good indication that organic foods have been corporatized. Examples of the corporate influx include:
- McDonald’s restaurants in the Northeast will be carrying organic fair-trade coffee
- General Mills owns Cascadian Farms and the popular organic Muir Glen brand
- Kraft, which is owned by Phillip Morris, owns Boca, a popular soy burger company
Dean Foods, the dairy giant, owns White Wave and Silk soymilks,
as well as Horizon
As the organic food industry has matured, USDA standards have waned. The result is that consumers can no longer be confident their foods meet organic standards even if the USDA gives its green mark of approval.
Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press).
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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