Feds propose weak organic food rules

  • Mel Coleman Sr., left, and son Mel Jr.

    photo courtesy Coleman Natural Products
  • carton of Horizon organic half and half


For Colorado rancher Mel Coleman, a lot hangs on a definition. His family began raising cattle on the open range in 1875 and has never used chemicals. A century later, Coleman discovered that people would pay more for his beef if he added the word "natural" to the labels. In the years that followed, Coleman built a small empire selling natural beef grown by ranchers around the West. By 1996, his company was pulling in $55 million a year.

But the word natural can mean different things. When Coleman was certified by the federal government as a natural beef producer in 1979, it meant his cows grew free from antibiotics from birth and were fed only chemical-free feed.

A year later the USDA relaxed its rules, and almost overnight, corporate farms like Frank Perdue and Tyson Foods were permitted to label their meat natural.

Coleman stayed afloat by adding explanations to his label that his cows remained antibiotic and growth-hormone free. But the natural label had been watered down, Coleman says.

Then in 1990, Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act, ordering the USDA to create standards determining what foods could carry the "organic" label. Coleman and other like-minded farmers thought national standards would give them a boost; national standards would reduce fraud and increase confidence in the organic label now handed out by 50 public and private groups around the country.

But since the USDA went public with its proposed standards last December, producers around the West have called it a botched job that threatens independent farms and the organic industry's hard-won respect.

"The proposed rule would kill natural and organic production," says Coleman. "It would just kill our company." Under the new rules, ranchers who give their livestock antibiotics and synthetic medicine could also label their meat organic.

Coleman could continue to operate without such drugs, but he would have a tough time competing with corporations such as Iowa Beef Producers, since the new rules would outlaw any "antibiotic free" or "free range" labels. Without these labels, shoppers wouldn't be able to tell Coleman's beef from meat raised in cramped feedlots where the drugs are considered necessary. The USDA says this is to keep one producer from claiming it is more organic than another.

Coleman says it's nonsense. "You ought to be able to do anything in the United States as long as it's legal and you can prove it. (The USDA) wants the whole industry to swim in the same mud puddle."

Diluting the definition

Over the past three months, the USDA has been flooded with letters from farmers and consumers objecting to the rules. By late March, it had received over 40,000 comments, more than it had received on any issue in its history.

There were huge turnouts at four public hearings from Texas to Seattle to New Jersey. A scan of the transcripts of those hearings on the USDA Web site failed to show any support for the new standards.

"I can tell you, there's a lot of concern out there," says Dave Carter with the Rocky Mountain Farmers' Union. In January, Carter traveled around Colorado and New Mexico asking farmers and ranchers for their reactions to the rules. Almost all of the 250 people who turned out at his meetings raised objections.

Carter sums them up as the "big three":

* The rules would allow farmers to fertilize organic crops with sewage sludge, which can be laced with heavy metals;

* The rules would allow processors to expose organic meat and produce to radiation to kill bacteria; and

* Organics would include genetically engineered foods, such as tomatoes containing fish genes.

The concerns don't end there. The new rules would allow farmers to feed to livestock rendered animal parts, as well as grain that contains up to 20 percent nonorganic material. They also permit ranchers to limit animals' access to the outdoors.

Karla Tschoepe, who runs a 200-acre poultry and beef operation in Paonia, Colo., objects to the standards on principle. Under the new rules, her chickens could be considered organic even though she feeds them some nonorganic soy.

"Until I can get 100 percent organic feed, I won't call my chickens organic," she said at a recent meeting in Delta, Colo. "It wouldn't be right or honest."

"What the USDA is calling organic," said another farmer at the meeting, "most organic farmers wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole."

Broader implications

The debate goes deeper than definitions. Critics say the proposed organic standards are an open door for agribusiness that will leave independent farmers with one less option for survival.

"Organics is value," says Lynda Primm with the Small Farm Connection in New Mexico. "That's exactly why corporations have lobbied USDA (for a place in organics)."

She has a point. Organic food has a reputation for being earth-friendly, healthy - and expensive. And growing concern over the environmental impacts of conventional agriculture and the danger of pesticide residues in food means more people are willing to pay more for organics. Nationally, organics are a $3.5 billion industry, according to the Organic Trade Association, and by 2000 that figure will be $6.5 billion.

Once associated with counterculture hippies and out-of-date old-timers, organics offer a growing niche for independent farms, which can sell vegetables, meat and herbs to natural food stores at prices 20 to 50 percent higher than conventional crops.

It is an option that is especially important in the West, says Joran Viers, director of the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission, a state agency that helps farmers grow and sell products ranging from cotton to sprouts and bread made with organic flour. In arid regions, he says, farmers generally don't have huge areas of arable land.

"With 10 or 20 acres, you can't grow commodity crops and make any kind of a living," he says. "But for those with foresight and marketing skill, there's a lot of opportunity in the organic niche."

It's an issue of particular relevance to places like Colorado's Front Range that face rapid urban development, says Dave Carter. As property values rise and farm land disappears, he says, farmers are forced to make more money on less land. Organics are one alternative to selling out to developers.

"Our constituency is small farms and ranches," he says. "If that is going to survive, organics is going to be a part of it."

And in rural areas, organic farms are important because they are generally small, labor-intensive industries that "require more people, not more machines," he adds. Organic farmers also keep money in the community by using local fertilizer and feed, he says, rather than ordering from corporate distributors.

At this point, critics like Carter are calling for a complete rewrite. "We went into our meetings with an open mind," says Carter. "But the message from the growers is that these regulations need major surgery. We'd like to see the standards retooled."

Tara Thomas is writing her master's degree thesis on sustainable agriculture for the University of Montana. Greg Hanscom is HCN's assistant editor.

You can ...

* Send your comments by April 30 to Eileen Stommes, USDA, National Organic Standards, Docket# TMD- 94-00-2, USDA, AMS, Room 4007- S, AGStop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, D.C. 20090-6456;

* Find the USDA's proposed organic standards on the World Wide Web at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop;

* Call the Rocky Mountain Farmers' Union at 800/373-7638; and

* Find an overview of the major issues at www.saveorganic.org.

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