Batcha of the Organic Trade Association wrote that food with the USDA organic label is rigorously monitored. “No other agricultural system operates under the comprehensive and rigorous set of federal regulations and standards by which organic farmers choose willingly to abide,” she said in her response.
You Might Also Like
Explore This IssueOctober/November 2018
Also By This Author
Dr. Miller responded to their letters a couple of weeks later in The Wall Street Journal, quoting Dan Glickman, who was agriculture secretary in 2000 when the federal organic standards were approved.
“I am proud to say these are the strictest, most comprehensive organic standards in the world,” Glickman said in 2000.
Although Glickman embraced organic food, saying he sometimes buys organic frozen foods, The Washington Post said he made clear that the new organic seal does not imply the organic foods are either safer or more nutritious.
“The organic label is a marketing tool,” he said at the time. “USDA is not in the business of choosing sides, of stating preferences for one kind of food, one set of ingredients or one means of production over any other.”
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, also weighed in on Dr. Miller’s comments via Twitter, saying he soon would release more detailed information on what different terms mean on food packaging to help consumers best use claims like organic and antibiotic free.
In other tweets, Dr. Gottlieb said the FDA and USDA have different roles in the oversight of organic foods. USDA regulates use of the term “organic” on food labels, while FDA oversees general food labeling compliance and food safety issues.
USDA became responsible for regulatory oversight of organic standards and accreditation of organic certifying agents under the National Organic Program (NOP), which was signed into law in 2000. The USDA Organic seal was subsequently introduced. Today, there are more than 24,000 certified organic operations throughout the U.S., according to the Organic Trade Association.
It is unclear to what extent the booming market for organic foods may be overloading certification operations.
The Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), the largest of 15 certifiers in that state, had to stop accepting new certifications in August 2017 because of the large volume of applications. It certifies 260 operations as organic. In August 2017, the number of certified organic food operations ISDA was handling was up 40 percent from four years before. It hired more inspectors in 2016, 2017, and this year.
“There was so much growth and we wanted to make sure certification was done correctly for our current clients, so we placed a temporary cap on new applications,” says ISDA organic program manager Gwen Ayres. She says it is unclear when ISDA will be able to lift the cap.
Organic growers can still try to get certified by other organizations, she says.
Is the USDA Organic Label Enough?
While the USDA Organic label intends to define in detail what is or isn’t organic food, advances in agriculture, food preparation, and internationalization all have conspired to challenge traditional definitions. A number of organic farmers also want to consider environmental impacts of organic practices in labeling.
Some organic food contains trace amounts of non-organic food parts, like spices, which are allowable up to a certain percentage. Also in question are growing techniques such as hydroponics, a process used to grow vegetables in water with nutrients.
The Real Organic Project, based in East Thetford, Vt., wants an add-on label to the USDA Organic label. The group of organic farmers says there are a lot of good things about the USDA NOP rules. But it objects to rules that allow hydroponics and concentrated animal feeding operations to be certified as organic. It announced a pilot farm inspection program in July.