What is Organic?

A look at the 1998 brouhaha over the federal organic standards


| May/June 1998



A hundred angry demonstrators, many of them dressed as fruits and vegetables, marched outside a downtown Seattle office building, chanting "Hi-hi, hi-ho, organic standards have to go." A Greenpeace protester stood nearby in a strawberry costume topped with a fish head. Fishberry, she called herself, as she peddled T-shirts warning of the weird and horrid new creatures that would be created if the "government got its way" and genetic engineering was unleashed on America.

This was the scene at a recent public hearing on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed rules on regulating the booming organics industry. After eight years of debate, agriculture secretary Dan Glickman in December unveiled the recommendations amid great fanfare. "The rules are going to clear up the confusion that sometimes exists in the minds of consumers, processors, and merchandisers about what is and what is not organic," he said.

Instead of clearing things up, however, the proposed standards have ignited a prairie fire of opposition guaranteed to cloud the real issues facing the organic food industry.

Although organic farms make up less than 2 percent of U.S. crop acreage, sales of organically grown vegetables, dairy products, beef, and poultry have been growing 20 percent a year since the late '80s to more than $4 billion annually. But with growth has come growing pains: Well-known companies, including Dole and Glacial Ridge Foods, have faced accusations of fraudulently marketing conventionally grown, chemically treated barley, beans, apples, and bananas as organic, while certification agencies allegedly turned a blind eye. In 1996, natural juice maker Odwalla and organic lettuce grower Holly Cut Farms were implicated in E. coli poisoning incidents blamed on slipshod safety and health standards. "There's always been a bad apple or two," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and former head of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents 600 growers, processors, shippers, retailers, and certification organizations. "But now it's up to five or six bad apples out of every hundred."

With so many newcomers rushing to cash in on organic cachet, self-policing hasn't always worked. At present, the term "certified organic" relies in large part on the honest representations of farmers about the growing process. Only 11 state governments certify crops and food as organic. Six others have independent organic certification agencies, but each has slightly different criteria. To bolster consumer confidence, the industry asked the government to draft a clear national standard.

And, in fact, there is a lot to like about the proposed standards. They require that organic crops be grown in soil that is enriched with compost, manure, and other natural materials and not treated with unapproved synthetics for three years. Farms and processing plants would face inspection by independent verification agencies, much like the system now in place in California, considered the pace-setter for the organic industry. Those that passed would earn the right to display a "certified organic" label on their product, a form of Good Housekeeping seal much like the USDA stamp on Grade A eggs.