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CORPORATE ORGANICS : A History of Slipping Organic Standards in the US

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A History of Slipping Organic Standards in the US

By the time the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) got around to producing a set of enforceable organic standards, corporations - whose entry into the organic market on a big scale relied on uniform standard in the first place - were able to influence the process. Through their formidable lobbying power the standards reflected the needs and desires of industrialised organic. This pattern was repeated each time the standards were brought up for debate, and each time has prompted strong public opposition.

- 1990 - the Organic Foods Production Act 1990 required the development of coherent national organic standards (previously standards were regional/state-wide).

The Act mandated a committee of stakeholders, NOSB to advise the USDA in the development of a draft set of standards

- 1997 - The USDA released draft organic regulations which allowed the use of GM crops, sewage sludge, antibiotics, slaughter by-products and irradiation in organic production. Over 300,000 public comments (a national record) were submitted to the USDA, almost all condemned the draft proposal. The proposal was withdrawn.

- 2002 - The US food industry's biggest players lobbied hard for and, in 2002, won a set of organic standards which favoured the industrialisation of organic. Big organic won the argument on important questions like: Is a factory farm organic? (Yes, it can be); Does a cow need pasture? (Yes, but there is no definition of how much); Can food additives and preservatives be used in organic processed food? (Yes),. The US organic standards are 'scale neutral', there is nothing in the standards that legally limits farmers from operating dairies with thousands of cows, feedlots with thousands of beef cattle or growing monocultures of vegetables on thousands of acres.

- 2003 - In early 2003, there was an attempt to weaken the US standards, when a congressman from Georgia, acting for the benefit of a poultry company in his district, slipped a provision into a government spending bill to relax the requirement that organic feed be used to produce organic chicken. The provision stated that whenever the price of organic feed was twice as high as conventional feed, then conventional feed could be substituted, and the chickens could still be labelled organic, creating a dilemma about when an organic chicken is really organic. Following an outcry from the organic community, the US Congress overturned the loophole and reinstated the 100% organic feed requirement.[lii]

- 2005 - The Organic Trade Association, which represents the big US food corporations like Kraft, Dole, Wal-Mart and Dean Foods, assisted by the US Department of Agriculture, lobbied heavily to attach a rider to the 2006 US Agricultural Appropriations Bill that would weaken US organic food standards by allowing certain synthetic ingredients and processing aids to be used in the preparation, processing, and packaging of organic foods. The regulatory changes have also effectively taken away the National Organic Standards Board’s traditional lead jurisdiction in setting US organic standards. Despite objections from organic activists the bill passed into law.

In 2010 the National Organic Program (NOP), a body that develops and administers organic standards in the US, fought back with what it dubbed the 'age of enforcement', during which loose definitions of rules such as 'access to pasture' were to be clarified, more detailed standards made for organic livestock and a stronger inspection process to be implemented.[liii] The rules are said to 'reflect years of work to close loopholes exploited by so-called "organic" factory farms'.[liv] The NOP also addressed several long-standing complaints made by the Cornucopia Institute (a campaigning organisation for small and family-scale farming) about violations of organic rules by industrial-scale organic dairies.[xlv]


[lii] Michael Sligh and Carolyn Christman (2003), Who Owns Organic: The Global Status, Prospects and Challenges of a Changing Organic Market Rural Advancement Foundation International–USA www.rafiusa.org/pubs/OrganicReport.pdf

[liii] Eli Penberthy, 'Organics in 2010: The Age of Enforcement' February 2010


[liv] Ibid

[lv] Ibid