On Oct. 21 new standards for organic foods became the law of the land.
After 12 years of wrangling and negotiating, it was finally clear what could and could not be called organic. All producers of organic foods would be playing by the same rules. Customers would know what the organic label actually meant.
Then last month, in a provision buried in the 3,000-page, $397 billion federal spending bill, a shadow fell over those standards. Widely reported as inserted without a public hearing by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) at the urging of Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) for Fieldale Farms, a corporation of poultry farmers in Deal's north Georgia district, the provision relaxed the standard for organic animal feed with a significant loophole: In situations when organic feed costs twice as much as conventional feed, meat and poultry could still be labeled organic even if the animals hadn't been fed organic feed.
In other words, consumers would have no idea whether the livestock was organically raised. Georgia chickens, for example, could be called organic even if the farmers fed them conventional feed containing antibiotics and pesticides.
The trustworthiness of the new organic standards was put in question. And the ruckus hasn't stopped since.
For one thing, Deal denies having initiated the last-minute provision. "The congressman did not ask for that language at the eleventh hour," says Deal's chief of staff, Chris Riley, speaking from Deal's Gainesville, Ga., office. "That did not take place." (He also says, however, "They are extremely pleased the congressman [Hastert] went to bat for them." )
And presented with Deal's denial, Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, says he'd rather not comment.
Whatever its authorship, the language is causing havoc.
"We found out about the provision about noon the day the bill was brought to the floor," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). "We notified people in the House and the Senate, but at that point they weren't going to vote against it."
On the same day, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who sponsored the Organic Foods Production Act more than a decade earlier, immediately sent out a "Dear colleague" letter alerting senators to the situation, but the spending bill was "locked down" and the last-minute provision could not be removed. The next morning Leahy with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R.-Maine) launched an effort to repeal the rider, with a news conference introducing the Organic Restoration Act. By noon there were two dozen sponsors, both Democrat and Republican.
In the House, Rep. Sam Farr (D.-Calif.), who initiated organics legislation in California in 1990 and has worked to bring about national organics standards since he entered Congress in 1993, also didn't know about the situation until the day the bill was brought to the floor. Farr immediately geared up as well, sending out letters to colleagues, conferring with organic leadership organizations and introducing a bipartisan bill to repeal the provision with 60 co-sponsors.
Before a week had passed Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman expressed her displeasure with (and distanced the administration from) the last-minute tactics, saying that the provision could weaken the national organic program and that the best way to ensure the integrity of the organic label was to maintain the organic standards that the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented last October.
Since then, expressions of anger about the stealth move have echoed far beyond Capitol Hill. Bedfellows as seemingly unlikely as small organic farmers and big corporate entities have united in their opposition to the move.
"I was stunned at first," says David Cole, chairman of Sunnyside Farms, a diversified organic farm in Washington, Va. "It was hard to believe that kind of process could take place after such long and thoughtful work. To have it unravel in the blink of an eye was infuriating. We've invested millions of dollars in organic herds and organic grains. To see someone sneak in the middle of the night and say the rules don't apply to them is fundamentally un-American."
Corporate America, which is more cautious in language that might be seen as criticizing Congress, was unhappy too. "We want to offer consumers choices," says Ed Nicholson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, which since late 2001 has had "a modest organic line" of fresh chicken in limited markets. "We feel that not requiring organic feed compromises the integrity of the [certification] process. We're in favor of the legislation that Senator Leahy has proposed."
General Mills, which owns Small Planet Foods, a leading organic food producer, supports repeal as well. "We have a relationship with our consumer, and when we put organic on our product, we want them to know that's what they're getting," says spokeswoman Marybeth Thorsgaard.
The reaction from the Organic Trade Association and its 1,200 member companies was hardly measured. "We were angry and outraged," says DiMatteo. "It destroyed the work we had done -- getting the USDA to understand and support the principles of organic agriculture -- for the last 12 years. . . . And it wasn't like the implementation of the standards on Oct. 21 was a surprise. This particular poultry producer [Fieldale Farms] had been in conversation with the organic industry for at least three years. It was a case of someone who didn't want to accept the regulations and the standards managing through the dark of the night and behind closed doors to actually get what they wanted -- a suspension of the standard."
Such a scenario, of course, is not exactly new on Capitol Hill. But it does serve as a civics lesson about public debate. Since the language was inserted behind closed doors, and no one is willing to claim authorship, it's unclear who did what, or for that matter, when. In addition, many people interviewed for this story speculated that many members of Congress were not only unaware of the rider, but also unaware of its implications.
Says one congressional staffer who favors the organic standards: "This is what happens when the legislative process is short-circuited and deals are cut behind closed doors rather than in a conference. If [the provision] had been put to a vote, we would have had a chance to expose and defeat it. I don't think a lot of lawmakers understood how this would affect their states and their districts. People are now seeing how big their investment is."
The high level of anger about the move is a reflection of the increasing popularity of organic foods and beverages in this country. The organic industry is growing rapidly, about 20 percent a year, according to the Organic Trade Association. In 1990, when the Organic Foods Production Act became law as part of the 1990 farm bill, retail sales were less than $1 billion in the United States. By 2001, they were $11 billion.
But the reaction is also about money. Everybody in the organics industry -- what Leahy describes as having grown in the last decade "from crunchy to corporate and everything in between" -- stands to lose if the American public loses trust in the standards instituted last fall. And there is already anxiety about how the current situation could impact America's position exporting organic foods.
"Organic products are the fastest-growing sector for our farm exports, and right now we have a head start on the rest of the world," says Leahy. "Our products are accepted worldwide because our standards are higher. Lowering our standards would squander our lead, and markets would begin closing to our products. Doing that would be senseless, and it would be devastating to our organic producers."
Meanwhile, back in Gainesville, the "poultry capital of the world," where the industry is immortalized in the center of town with a 25-foot-tall marble monument topped by a big bronze rooster, reaction to the last-minute provision allowing the use of conventional feed is one of relief. "There are 165-plus poultry farmer families who are extremely happy they don't have to close their farms down and can stay in business," says Chris Riley, Deal's chief of staff.
As to the future, any action to repeal the provision will have to wend its way through the House and Senate in the normal, not particularly speedy, way. As of Monday, 66 senators had signed on to the Leahy bill. Things are moving more slowly in the House, where Farr is looking for an appropriate vehicle to attach his legislation to -- perhaps a supplemental spending bill.
"It's not easy," says Farr, who is on the agriculture appropriations subcommittee. "In the House, [a rider] has to be germane, and the only things now are war-related issues."
At the end of the day, the fact that public outrage about a degradation of organic standards is taking place while American has a controversial war on its mind is an indication of the intensity of feelings on the subject. "This is a very passionate industry, very committed to principles of organic agriculture," says the OTA's DiMatteo. "There is also a very passionate consumer sector that has stood by the industry, actually pushing it, and asking for very high requirements in terms of processing organic ingredients."