WHY DID the organic chicken cross the road? To get to Georgia -- or so it seems. Over the past few days, there has been much squawking and ruffling of feathers in Congress over a measure, quietly inserted into the omnibus spending bill that President Bush signed into law last month, that neatly eviscerates U.S. Department of Agriculture organic regulatory standards. These standards, put into place last October after a 12-year debate, establish what qualifies as organic. Farmers who meet them are allowed to put the label "organic" on their produce. Farmers who do not must settle for "fresh" or some other suitable euphemism. To obtain this coveted label, which usually commands higher prices, farmers must feed their chickens nothing but organic chicken feed, according to the regulations.
Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) inserted language into the spending bill that weakens these standards, apparently to allow a single farm in his district to use less than 100 percent organic feed. Mr. Deal claims the original regulations were unfair -- that organic chicken feed is too difficult to obtain -- and that there should therefore be a sub-organic standard for chicken, as there is for fruit and vegetables. Organic chicken farmers all over the country are furious about the change because they have spent money and time trying to meet a standard that has now been rendered meaningless. As a result, members of Congress from both parties are lining up to sponsor new legislation that would strike down the provision and return to the original rules. In addition, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman has released a statement supporting "bipartisan efforts" to reverse the legislation.
All are right to advocate change but wrong to be self-righteous about it. Whatever anyone feels about regulatory procedures, congressional spending bills are not the place to amend them. At the same time, among the long list of sponsors and co-sponsors of this remedial bill, at least a few are surely guilty of similar offenses. The corrupt and bloated appropriations process has long thwarted attempts to cut federal spending, so it's no surprise it disrupts agricultural regulation as well. Congress should say "no deal" to Mr. Deal. Real change, however, will require far more than the reversal of this one measure.