Regulation of organic produce tightened

Genetically modified ingredients prohibited


WASHINGTON -- More than two years after the federal government's first effort to define and regulate organic food failed to win public approval, the Department of Agriculture is announcing much tougher rules that prohibit the use of genetically modified ingredients in products carrying the organic label.

The rules also prohibit the use of irradiation to decontaminate products and the application of sewage sludge as fertilizer.

The rules, to be announced this week, could take effect by the end of the year.

Of the more than 275,000 comments received in response to the original proposal in 1997, almost all opposed those three processes, which the Agriculture Department had considered allowing.

The new rules indicate an about-face in the department's attitude toward organic farming and represent one of several steps it is taking to help the small- and medium-sized farmers who have been largely ignored by the agency for decades.

The national standards could help U.S. producers sell organic food abroad, where there has been substantial opposition to the use of genetically modified crops and other new technologies.

"This could turn out to be the most important rule USDA has issued in 20 years," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, the director of the agriculture and biotechnology program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group in Washington that had urged the agency to toughen its earlier proposals.

"The Agriculture Department's policies have made small farmers an endangered species," Mellon said. "Now it is trying to construct a system to allow small farmers to help them survive, to help them flourish.

It is also a turning point in its relationship to consumers. The agency has not been seen as responsive to consumers' desires or demands."

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said that if people thought the standards were too strict they should let the department know during the 90-day comment period before the agency enacts the final rules.

"I'd rather go from too strict standards and ease them than going the other way," Glickman said.

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