October 21, 2002 is a “green letter day” many have prepared for a very long while. On that date, foods and other agricultural commodities that have qualified, will become available as USDA Certified Organic.
What’s the difference? We’ve been enjoying organic foods and wearing organic socks and such for quite some time now, haven’t we? Well yes, and no…and maybe. Over the past couple of decades there have existed within the U.S. some fifty plus versions of organic standards, and several models of certification groups to guarantee for consumers that organic products are valid, and those are the products we have known as “certified organic.” While there has been increasing harmonization of terminologies, definitions, practices and standards, and remarkably few scams, for an industry that has increased its sales volume by some 20% per year for a decade – it’s been a confusing playingfield to say the least.
In 1990, as part of an omnibus federal farm bill, Congress responded to the growing consumer and grower demands for federal standards, and following spirited debate and input, passed the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA). But passage of such an act is merely a beginning, since it is only a skeleton, needing the bones and flesh to be added. Responsibility for administering OFPA is under the Agricultural Marketing Service of the United States Department of Agriculture and, specifically, within the National Organic Program. To visit the website and, literally, “read all about it!” go to www.ams.usda.gov/nop .
By 1992, the agency had finally appointed the first body of citizen members of the unpaid National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory group, whose responsibility is to take public comment and hammer out specific guiding regulations and policies. Those recommendations are then passed to the agency, put into legalese, and published. After still more input and review, the regulations become law. It all sounds cut and dried. However, the first USDA proposed standards, published in December of 1997, were so far off the mark, and so thoroughly ignored the very solid recommendations and intent of the citizen board, that nearly 300,000 responses were received by the USDA. There was a chorus of “Save our Standards” and a rejection, in particular, of any attempts to allow (1) genetically modified processes and ingredients, (2) post-harvest ionizing radiation treatment of crops, and (3) use of sewage sludge in fertilizers.
The USDA took the comments very seriously, and to their credit, threw out the old and finally, in March of 2000, rang in the new proposed standards. Response has been very positive overall. The standards are very high. Of course, this is a living document. It falls to members of the current board, on which I am honored to serve until 2005, as well as relying on the continual scrutiny and oversight of all of us as citizens who value organic and sustainably produced products, and to future citizen watchdogs, and NOSB members to guard existing high standards while constantly raising the bar, ad infinitum. And so we shall!
So, if you are reading this prior to October of 2002, stay tuned. If you are reading this after the implementation date, you now know how reassuring it is to be able to purchase goods marked “certified organic,” whether in Seattle, New York or anywhere in the world you find a label reading “certified according to USDA standards.” Display of the USDA seal is voluntary, but entities accredited and authorized by the USDA to certify all such products must place their name on the product. Their address and contact information will be kept current on the web site.