USDA Releases Final Organic Rule

January 1, 2001

5 Min Read
USDA Releases Final Organic Rule

USDA Releases Final Organic Rule

WASHINGTON--The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Dec.20 released its final rule for implementation of the National Organic Program (NOP).A decade in the making, the rule is a prime example of a private-publicpartnership, said outgoing U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman. "Wesaid that we would deliver standards that could be embraced by farmers, industryand consumers alike, and we have done exactly that," he said. "Nowit's time to take the next steps to fully embrace organic agriculture and giveit a more prominent role in the farm policy of the 21st century."

Industry members were primarily positive about the final rule. "It's abright day in Washington and for the organic industry," said KatherineDiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). "Therule is a good, strong regulation and one that will move the organic industryforward." DiMatteo noted that the rule was not perfect, and that there wereareas OTA hoped to address, but that overall it was "quiteacceptable."

USDA received almost 41,000 comments on the revised proposed rule, which itissued in March 2000, and incorporated those comments into the final rule. Thefinal rule will become effective 60 days after its Dec. 21 publication in the FederalRegister and will be fully implemented 18 months after the effective date.Not surprisingly, USDA stayed true to the word given when the proposed rule cameout in March and will not allow use of irradiation, sewage sludge or geneticallymodified organisms (GMOs) in organic production; however, there were somechanges made in the final rule, some of which are listed below.

* Products labeled as "made with organic ingredients" must have atleast 70-percent organic ingredients, up from 50-percent in the March proposal.According to the final rule, the increased percentage brings the U.S. regs inline with those in Europe.

* Manufacturers may state the exact percentage of organic ingredients on theprincipal display panel.

* A "whole herd" clause now exists for transitioning organic dairyherds. The one-time allowance permits farmers to transition for nine months atless than 100-percent organic feed, with the final three months at 100-percentorganic feed. "This one-time exception to using 100-percent organic feed iscritical for conversion to organic given today's record low milk prices,"said Amy Forgues, a member of the Organic Valley farmer cooperative, during theUSDA press conference.

* Wine containing sulfites can be labeled as "made with organicgrapes."

* The USDA seal to be used only on products containing 95-percent or moreorganic ingredients has been redesigned. The new seal is a green and whitecircle stating "USDA Organic." The change from a badge, which lookedsimilar to that used for other USDA-inspected grading programs, was in responseto comments that the seal made organic products look "better" or"safer" than conventional items. "The organic label is amarketing tool," Glickman said. "It is not a statement about foodsafety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality." Theseal may not be used until the full 18-month implementation phase has passed.

* Products containing 95-percent organic ingredients must providedocumentation that the remaining ingredients are not commercially available asorganic. USDA will be taking comments for 90 days on this issue, including howto enforce it and the burden it will place on producers. "I think USDA madea wise decision to put 'commercial availability' in there even though it's ahard term to define," said Joe Smillie, senior vice president of QualityAssurance International (QAI). "It's much more safe to say 'you don't needto do it,' but USDA took the hard road, which is the correct road."

Some issues of concern that industry members commented on were not changed inthe final rule. For example, products containing 70-percent or more organicingredients still have the obligation to ensure that the conventionalingredients used were also not produced with excluded methods, such as GMOs orirradiation. Also, a transitional organic label, requested by many industrymembers, was not permitted in the final rule because "it is unclear whatmarketplace value such a label might have, and [USDA is] concerned that allowingsuch a label at this point might lead to greater consumer confusion rather thanproviding clarity." DiMatteo said that while the transitional label issomething the industry was hoping for, it will likely not petition immediatelyfor that label but will assess the best way to proceed on that and otherpriorities to be addressed in the implementation.

USDA also decided that most issues brought up by commenters about GMOs areoutside the scope of the organic rule. While there is still no allowance forGMOs in organic production, the rule does not require buffer strips forconventional farmers or establish liability for genetic drift onto organicoperations. In addition, the presence of genetically engineered material in anorganic product would not necessarily violate organic certification or status.

Overall, the organic industry was celebrating in the initial hours afterrelease of the final rule. "The national regulations will change the faceof the organic industry," said Gene Kahn, founder and chief executiveofficer of Small Planet Foods, a division of General Mills. "We expect tosee the organic industry blossom under the new USDA regulations." AddedSmillie, "Kathleen Merrigan and Dan Glickman have done a really good jobaddressing our concerns, including some of the more delicate concerns like GMOs.They've been paying a lot of attention lately, and did a great joboverall."

In Glickman's address, he also stated that USDA passed a cost-share programto help small producers in 15 states receive organic certification; this wasseen as another spot of good news. "OFRF has insisted that the USDA adoptstrict and transparent rules from the beginning and will continue to advocatefor a fair share of our public agricultural research and educationresources," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic FarmingResearch Foundation (OFRF). "Organic farming is the brightest hope for aprosperous and sustainable future in our fields and on our tables."

For more information, or to view the final rule, visit

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