How Do You Spell Organic?

In late September, after 10,000 last-minute phone calls and 70,000 emails to members of Congress, legislators spared the Organic Food Production Act from a sneak attack by Kraft, Wal-Mart, and Dean Foods. The proposed rider to the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Bill would have allowed a greater number of synthetic processing aids to be used in organic foods without prior review by the National Organics Standards Board and otherwise weaken the Act. It would OK the use of antibiotics in a dairy cow’s first year and allow synthetics to be vetted by the Secretary of Agriculture rather than the standards board.

“This rider is an overhaul, a detour, and it really weakens the board’s role,” says Craig Minowa, environmental scientist with the Organic Consumers Association. “You can see where big biotech and agribusiness interests could step in and dilute organic standards.”

The Organic Trade Association represents many organic producers—from the large to the small. Kraft and Dean Foods, which owns Horizon, define “large”—and it was large producers that supported the rider. The OTA ended up lobbying members of Congress to pass the amendment. But not all trade association members agreed. “The conventional big food processors are the ones flexing their muscles and driving this,” says Joe Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety. “The Organic Trade Association is facing a problem internally. A lot of their members are not happy with what’s going on. It’s a split trade association at this point.”

The Senate voted against the rider but added an amendment requesting that the USDA study the issues and report its findings within 90 days. Trying to make peace, the Senate decided to convene negotiations between the Organic Trade Association and public interest groups such as the Organic Consumers Association and the Center for Food Safety. The groups were deliberating about appropriate language until the OTA generated its own wording and sneaked the rider in.

Now the organics community has another chance to influence how standards are regulated. But so far the outlook for alliance-building isn’t good. Says Mendelson about his counterparts at the OTA, “[they] certainly have not been cooperative in discussing the issue with us.”

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