Organic Foods

Organic Foods

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), a trade group based in Greenfield, Massachusetts that represents more than 900 members involved in the production and sale of certified organic products, estimates that the organic food industry is worth $4.2 billion annually, and will expand at a rate of more than 24% per year. The growing demand for organic foods can be attributed to factors such as concern about environmental protection, fear about food safety, and an increasing awareness of potential links between adverse health effects and chemical exposures such as pesticide residues.

While consumers have increasing organic options, there are currently no consistent requirements for organic labeling and no guarantee that foods labeled as organic are actually grown and processed in a purely organic fashion. Organic, by definition, refers to foods that are grown and processed without the use of synthetic chemicals or pesticides. However, with the introduction of new technologies such as genetic engineering, debate has arisen about what role these technologies should play in organic food production, and whether the products of these technologies should be considered natural or synthetic.

These are among the issues that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is trying to hammer out in a proposed rule on organic foods. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is working on the development of the National Organic Program (NOP), which was mandated by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 under its requirement for the establishment of national standards governing the marketing of agricultural products as having been organically produced.

There are currently 11 state and 33 private organic certification entities. About half of all states have regulations regarding the labeling of organic products, but there is no interstate regulatory authority and the standards vary among states. The 1990 act grew out of pressure from organic farmers and consumers who wanted Congress to establish a national program to ensure that foods labeled organic meet consistent standards.

In 1996, the NOSB submitted a list of recommendations to the USDA. The USDA reviewed these recommendations, developed a proposed rule, and released it for public comment on 16 December 1997. In the proposed rule, organic products were defined as “agricultural products produced through a natural versus synthetic process.” The proposed rule outlined regulations that would govern the NOP and the allowable methods, practices, and substances to be used in producing and handling crops, livestock, and their processed products.

The USDA announced its plan to certify the systems used to produce and handle organic products, rather than certifying the products themselves. The activities involved in certifying operations would be conducted by state and private certifying agents accredited by the USDA. To become accredited, stated the proposed rule, operations would have to demonstrate that their personnel have the capability and experience to carry out the certification program. The USDA would conduct site evaluations to review the performance of the certifying agents.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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