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Questions and Answers about the National Organic Program Proposed Rule

The following is an excerpt of an article by Ronald Macher, Small Farm Today, February/March 1998. His article presents questions and answers about the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) proposed rules governing a new National Organic Program. The public comment period has been extended to April 30,1998. See the box at the end of this article to find out how to comment.

What will be the role of USDA in certifying organic operations?

Under the new proposal, the system used to produce and handle organic products, rather than the product itself, would be certified. The activities involved in certifying organic operations, such as reviewing applications, conducting inspections, and determining certification status, would be conducted by state and private certifying agents accredited by USDA.

Would the proposed rule permit processed organic foods to contain synthetic ingredients?

The proposed rule would allow up to 5 percent of the weight of a finished processed "organic" product, exclusive of water or salt, to be ingredients that are not organically produced, provided that the nonorganic ingredients are included on the National List. The proposed National List includes two categories of nonorganic ingredients. The first category, nonagricultural ingredients, includes such ingredients as baking powder, yeast, natural coloring, thickeners, and enzymes, which cannot be organically produced because they are not agricultural products. The second category, nonorganic agricultural ingredients, allows the use of any agricultural ingredient when the organic form of the ingredient is not commercially available. The proposed rule requires that, when possible, a nonsynthetic ingredient be chosen over a synthetic ingredient.

The proposed rule would permit the use of a synthetic processing aide when its use was necessary due to the ineffectiveness of methods that did not involve the use of processing aides, such as the use of potassium hydroxide to achieve color, finish, and crispness in pretzels.

How does the proposed rule address the level of pesticide residues in organic foods?

Certifying agents would conduct periodic residue testing of organic products and conduct an investigation of a certified farm when a pesticide residue found in an organic product exceeded a maximum level, which in most cases would be 5 percent of the established EPA tolerance for the pesticide residue. A product produced on a certified organic farm could not be sold as organic if the investigation showed that the residue was a result of an intentional application of a prohibited substance or was present at levels that exceeded the level of the pesticide caused by unavoidable residual environmental contamination. The organic label on a product certifies that it was produced according to a system of organic farming and handling. It is not, and has never been, a guarantee that the product is free of any pesticide residue. Pesticide residues may occur in agricultural products due to the unavoidable presence of residual chemicals in the soil, water, and air.

Does the proposed rule permit genetically engineered organisms to be used in organic production?

The rule does not specifically address the use of genetically engineered organisms. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended that genetically engineered organisms be prohibited from being labeled as organically produced. USDA is requesting public input on whether the use of genetically engineered organisms or their products in organic farming and handling should be permitted, prohibited, or allowed on a case-by-case basis.

How does the proposed rule address the subject of irradition?

The rule does not specifically address the use of irradiation. The NOSB has recommended that the use of irradiation be prohibited in handling organic products. USDA is requesting public comment concerning the subject of irradiation of organic products in order to evaluate its compatibility with the principles of organic handling.

How does the proposed rule address the use of raw manure in growing organic foods?

The proposed rule provides for the use of raw manure on land which is not used to grow crops for human consumption. Although we acknowledge that the use of animal manure is common in organic agriculture, there is inadequate data to make the determinations necessary regarding the safety of the crop after application of raw manure. The proposed rule requests public input on guidelines for the use of raw and composted livestock manure in organic production of food intended for human consumption that should be included in the final rule to ensure safety of organic food.

How are the issues of antibiotic use and living conditions for organic livestock production dealt with?

The proposed organic livestock standards require that preventive management measures, such as access to outdoors, space for movement, and appropriate living conditions, be established to maintain animal health without the use of drugs. The proposed standards, however, provide for appropriate flexibility to protect animals during inclement weather or to isolate sick animals. The proposed rule would permit drugs to be used in certain circumstances to treat illness or injury. Products, such as milk or eggs, from a treated animal could not be labeled "organic" until the applicable FDA-established withdrawal period of the drug had passed and the animal had recovered. The rule does not permit any hormones, antibiotics, or other growth stimulants to be fed to animals in the absence of illness.

What labeling provisions are proposed?

Products that contain a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients by weight, excluding water and salt, may be labeled "organic." Products that contain 50-95 percent organic ingredients by weight, excluding water and salt, would be required to be labeled as "made with certain organic ingredients." In both cases, the specific ingredients that are organically produced would be identified in the ingredients listing. The USDA seal my be used only on products that contain a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients by weight. The proposed labeling regulations would apply to any product that implies, directly or indirectly, on its label that the product was produced using organic methods. Products that contain less than 50 percent organic ingredients may use the term "organic" only in the ingredients listing.

What provisions are made to collect user fees for the National Organic Program?

Fees are proposed to be collected from each certifying agent to recover the costs to review accreditation applications, assess annual reports prepared by accredited agents, perform administrative functions, and conduct site evaluation visits. Additionally, USDA proposes to assess a fee of $50 from each certified organic farmer and $500 from each certified organic handler annually to recover costs. Operations selling $5,000 or less of agricultural products each year are exempt from mandatory certification.