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USDA's deputy secretary discusses challenges for organic food market

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; A11

Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary at the Agriculture Department, sat down with The Washington Post to discuss the agency's eight-year-old National Organics Program and the challenges ahead for the organics market, which is growing as much as 20 percent a year. In an investigation published last year, The Post pointed to several problems in the program, including the agency's failure to discipline violators and to properly test products labeled organic. The USDA's inspector general issued a report last month identifying the same problems and calling for changes.

Q What is the greatest challenge you face implementing reforms recommended by the inspector general so consumers know they are getting high-quality organic products?

I like to call this the age of enforcement. . . . There is always that period of time when people are adjusting to a new rule. What are the laws of the land? How do I comply? It is 2010. There is no longer any question about what the rules are, and there is no longer any forgiveness of any significant amount in the system for lax enforcement, for failure to comply. Among the things that the inspector general report pointed out was that we need to upgrade our enforcement mechanisms, and we are very much doing so.

How much time do you think it will take?

We have already begun. We are already in the process of putting residue-testing expectations at a higher level . . . so part of this is just getting our [organic] certifying agents that we accredit to do the job that they are supposed to do. We don't have to do big rulemaking. We don't have to get huge new budgets. We don't have to come up with huge new visions. We just need to do the job that was set forth in the law.

You helped develop the USDA's organic labeling rules in 1999-2001, but the program was largely shaped and implemented after you left. When you returned to the USDA last year, what was the most surprising thing you learned about what had happened with the program?

A: I left a pretty long to-do list when we published the final rule. Case in point: pasture. . . . What does it mean when we say "access to pasture," for ruminants, particularly dairy cows? . . . Well, that was on the list when I left in 2001. . . . There were a lot of things on that to-do list. I inherited that list right back.

: The problems with the organics program cited in the IG report took place during the Bush administration. What happened? Was it a lack of will? A lack of resources? Were they too friendly to big organic producers?

I assume it was not a priority.

What do you think is the biggest misconception that Americans have about organic products?

That organic has to be super expensive. I don't think it has to be, and with the growth in the industry we are seeing, some of those prices have come down. I think a lot of people think it is the white-tablecloth yuppies, the foodies who buy organic. . . . But organic foods can be found at farmers' markets, Wal-Mart and grocery stores like Safeway.

What would you recommend to consumers who want to find pesticide-free, organic products they can count on?

First, I'd tell them that organic is no guarantee that it is pesticide free. Organic farmers are allowed to use certain pesticides, and sometimes they are natural. I think one thing they can do is go to the [USDA's] Ag Marketing Service's pesticide-testing program (http://www.ams.usda.gov/pdp). We do supermarket sampling all over the country. We go into supermarkets just like Mom or Dad would do and we buy different produce, different foods, dairy, and we test them for pesticide residue. We put all our results on that Web site.

Do you buy organic products? What kind?

I do, but not exclusively. My husband does most of the grocery shopping. . . . We are more inclined to spend money on organic on the perimeters of the grocery store. So we are spending most of our time in the produce, meat, dairy aisles and not so much in the middle, where the processed foods are.

A small percentage of synthetic ingredients is allowed in products like organic cake doughnuts, marshmallows and macaroni and cheese. Should the USDA grant exemptions like this to find an organic path for junk and comfort foods?

I think yes. Obviously, I think so because it was in the law and in the final rule. Again, for me, organic has a very strong environmental connection, and people are always going to eat a certain amount of junk food, and if that junk food arrives in the supermarket and it has come from the most environmental, sound production regimes possible, I think that's great. So if consumers are choosing to use their food dollar to support that environmental system, I think that is fine. So you will sometimes see organic junk food in my basket as well.

As you look ahead, what important developments do you see for organic foods and the program?

I think consumers sometimes feel conflicted. Do I buy organic or do I buy local? . . . We are trying to find ways to grow domestic food markets to help rural communities. . . . And I think the extent to which we can expose [to the public] that overlap between organic and local/regional [producers] will help. I think there are some opportunities there that haven't been explored.

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