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USDA goes back to drawing board on organic rules

Date: Tue, Jul 21, 1998

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After being bombarded with nearly 300,000 angry letters from organic farmers and health-conscious consumers, the U.S. Agriculture Department said Wednesday it will try again this fall to create standards for organic products.

In May, the USDA withdrew a proposed rule that would have let food labeled as "organic" to contain human waste, irradiation or bio-engineered material. A record 280,000 letters filled USDA's mailbox with complaints about the plan from environmentalists, organic farmers, celebrities such as musician Willie Nelson and the entire Vermont legislature.

"We hope to have a proposed rule back out on the street by the end of the year," Keith Jones, the head of the USDA's organic program, told an organic standards board meeting. "We're going to be paying a lot more attention to international equivalency issues."

The rapidly expanding U.S. organic industry is expected to ring up more than $4 billion in sales this year, and continue its double-digit growth for the foreseeable future. Organic farmers have urged the USDA for years to adopt marketing standards for organic products to protect consumers from false claims.

The USDA's half-dozen organic program employees are still wading through the unprecedented number of letters, Jones said. Once completed, they will use that information to help draft a new set of organic standards that are enforceable, consistent and minimize the cost to the industry of certifying foods as organic, he said.

"I'm confident that we can deliver a rule to the American people and the organic industry that fulfills those principles," he said. When the USDA withdrew the first version of proposed rules, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman assured the organic industry that any future proposals would not allow organic products to contain sewage sludge, irradiation to enhance shelf life, or genetically-modified materials.






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