Dear Concerned Consumer:
We know you care about the planet and the purity and safety of your food supply. We know you can already buy products with organic labels - everything from cilantro to cantaloupe, from peppers to pumpernickel bread, from tofu to turkey.
But soon - perhaps as early as next month - the U.S. Department of Agriculture is going to try to make life easier for you and for everyone who has an interest in the rapidly growing market for "organic" foods by issuing rules that will define what "organic" means on a food label.
Until now, organic certifications have been issued by dozens of state and private agencies, with slightly differing standards, creating confusion in the minds of consumers and sometimes within the industry itself.
The rules will establish a national standard on how crops and animals can be raised if they are to be certified organic: crops must be grown without chemical or biological interference, without genetic modifications, on land that is free of contaminants. For animal products, it means animals raised for food must be treated in a humane manner, not confined, not genetically altered, and not given hormones or antibiotics that might show up in meat or dairy products.
The point is not to imply that following organic principles makes food better, but to standardize the rules for this type of farming.
Organic proponents hope the new rules will stimulate demand for organic foods - an industry that already tops $6 billion a year - by making it easier for both giants like General Mills and tiny mom-and-pop food stands to expand their markets.
In addition, business and government groups hope the new regulations will set an international standard for organic products and help the U.S. compete in the international market.
It's a prospect some farmers are eagerly awaiting. "The national standards will be great," says David Shaw, who, with his family, owns a 5-acre farm near Columbia that has been certified organic by the state of Maryland for four years. "They will level the playing field, and put some meaning into the term `organic.' They'll clarify in people's minds what organic is."
It's too soon to promise that consumers, who've demonstrated their faith in organic products by paying premium prices for them, will see organic-only supermarkets and lower prices. But at the least, they will have labels they can depend on when shopping for food.
"The important thing for consumers is consistency," says Bob Gray, Washington representative for the Organic Trade Organization, based in Greenfield, Mass., which represents farmers, trade groups, retailers, and marketers. "Right now we have all these different labels making different claims about what's organic and what's not."
Consumers might wonder, for instance, if a product is certified by a trade group, whether that group's standards are higher or lower than state standards. If they've never heard of a certifying group, they might wonder what, exactly is being certified. Organic producers who wanted to sell their broccoli or apples outside their own community might have to meet several sets of standards for the same product.
After the rules are finalized, he says, "consumers will have some certainty that the farm has been certified, and that standards are the same all over the country. There's a certain comfort level in having that label."
Coming up with a set federal regulations has taken 10 years because at first, the government didn't seem to be in the same book, much less on the same page, as the industry. The USDA's first attempt to create an organic standard in 1997 brought a firestorm of protest from more than 275,000 individuals and organizations outraged that the government considered irradiation of food, biologically altered organisms, and fertilization with municipal sludge acceptable organic practices.
Earlier this year, the USDA issued a revised set of rules that Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman promised were "fundamentally different" from the first set.
A number of issues remain to be settled. Among the most significant are who will do the certification fieldwork, whether states and private agencies can maintain higher standards than the government's, and who will shoulder the burden of paying for certification.
The final regulations are scheduled to be issued in January, although some industry watchers say they could be out as early as next month.
Maryland has had a program to certify organic produce for a decade and will certify meats after the first of the year. Valerie Frances, manager of Maryland's Organic Certification Program, says that with few exceptions, the differences between Maryland's standards and those proposed by USDA involve "very specific references" - for instance, to the names of chemicals, or to details of new technology.