National organic standards set
Consumers who are gobbling up organic products at an unprecedented rate should have a better idea of what they’re eating when the nation’s first ”organic labeling” rules roll out this year.
But the federal rules should have little effect in Nevada, where growers say the state already has more stringent standards.
”This will not be a perfect rule, a holy grail, but it’s a place to start so that farmers and consumers and the government can have some agreement on what organic means,” said Keith Jones, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.
Simply put, Jones said the rules – expected to take effect this summer – will require organic producers to go through a mandatory planning process, use materials off a restrictive list and get their farming practices verified by an authority.
Enforcement, he said, will be handled by state, county and private agencies that currently oversee the industry with a hodgepodge of rules and guidelines.
In Nevada, new federal labeling guidelines are not likely to have too much of an impact, said Peggy McKie, who monitors Department of Agriculture certification in the state.
“When we set up our standards, we set them up to comply with federal rules, but ours are more stringent,” she said. “The major issues will be materials allowed in organic farming.”
McKie said new rules probably won’t be as strict as the standards that already exist in the state. “We will re-release these rules maybe Feb. 1.”
All 20 small, organically certified farmers and processors in Nevada are subject to reviews twice a year and a yearly mandatory renewal of their licenses. Most of the operations deal in small quantities for sale to neighbors and at farmers’ markets.
Vegetable farmer Darrell Craig operates Johnson Lane Farms in Minden. The most land he will use at any given time is two acres.
“We are community supported – most of us are,” he said. “The standards have to be strict because the big operations are too lax.”
Federal guidelines will be enforced locally.
”We have empowered certifiers in this rule. But we’re also going to ask certifiers to step up to the plate and take action,” said Jones, speaking at the Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove, Calif., the nation’s largest annual gathering of organic farmers.
Congress called for consistent national ”organic” guidelines 10 years ago. But earlier proposals included irradiated and genetically engineered food in the organic categories, drawing a vast outcry – more than 280,000 protest letters from consumers and organic farmers.
Jones said the revised rules now match industry standards that exclude irradiated and genetically engineered products.
While the USDA has been grappling with how to define organic, the industry has boomed. Sales reached $6 billion last year, and industry organizations estimate growth of 20 to 25 percent a year as organic products become mainstream, according to the Organic Trade Association.
The USDA submitted its proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget last fall. The OMB is required to publish the rules in the Federal Register in February. After that, there will be a 60-day Congressional review, probably followed by an 18-month implementation period.