By 1990, 18 states had established organic programs, each of which had its own standards and requirements. That year, largely at the request of national farm and food trade associations, Congress adopted the Organic Foods Production Act to legitimize, standardize, and codify the term “organic.” But it took seven more years for the USDA to issue proposed regulations to implement the legislation.
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Explore this issueOctober/November 2010
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The USDA’s draft rule was highly controversial, because it would have permitted the use of genetic engineering, sewage sludge, and irradiation in the production of organic foods. After receiving nearly 275,000 comments from the public, mostly in opposition, the USDA reissued the rule in 2000, eliminating those practices. The new rule also established a National Organic Program within the Agricultural Marketing Service to set standards for and certify the production of foods labeled as organic. The final rule took effect in October 2002.
What It Means to Be Organic
When used in labeling, the term “organic” (unlike “natural,” “local,” or “green”) is defined by federal law and regulated through a certification process. Growers, producers, processors, and wholesalers (but not retailers) of organic foods must keep records verifying compliance with regulations and establishing a trail for traceability. Here are some other key requirements to earn and maintain organic certification:
- Crop farms: Fields must have not been treated with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically engineered organisms for 36 months prior to the first harvest. Only natural and approved synthetic substances can be applied. Genetically engineered seeds, sewage sludge, and irradiation are not permitted. Products may not be sold as “organic” if they contain residues of prohibited substances exceeding 5% of Environmental Protection Agency tolerances. An organic “farm plan” must be created and followed, including proactive approaches to soil fertility, biodiversity, and weed, disease, and insect management.
- Livestock operations: Only 100% organic feed may be given to animals. No antibiotics, growth hormones, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or feeding of animal byproducts are allowed. Dairy cows must be organically managed for one year prior to producing organic milk. All ruminants must graze on pasture for at least 120 days per year. Manure must be managed to prevent crop, water, or soil contamination.
- Processing operations: Mechanical or biological processing methods may be used, but without commingling or contamination during processing or storage. No GMOs, irradiation, artificial dyes, solvents, or preservatives may be used. Processors must not use packaging materials containing fungicides, preservatives, or fumigants.
Nearly 60 state and third party agencies certify production and handling according to national organic standards. Small operations, those having less than $5,000 in annual sales, are exempt from certification.