Weakening of Organic Standard Is Considered
By MARIAN BURROS
Buried within the $397 billion spending bill passed last night by Congress is a provision that would permit livestock producers to certify and label meat as "organic" even if the animals had been fed partly or entirely on conventional rather than organic grain.
Under the provision, if the Agriculture Department certifies that organic feed is commercially available only at more than twice the price of conventional feed, then the department cannot enforce regulations requiring that livestock labeled organically raised be fed only organic feed.
"This is an example of someone doing an end run to manipulate the government with disregard for the public's wishes," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, which represents the organic industry.
The provision was added to the omnibus spending bill behind closed doors on Wednesday night with only Republicans present. It was included on behalf of a Baldwin, Ga., poultry producer, the Fieldale Farms Corporation, which has been trying since last summer to get an exemption that would allow it to feed its chickens a mix of conventional and organic feed. The company says there is not enough organic feed available.
Congressional officials on both sides of the aisle say Speaker J. Dennis Hastert added the last-minute provisions at the request of Representative Nathan Deal, Republican of Georgia.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign contributions, Mr. Deal received $4,000 from employees of Fieldale, which is in his district, during his last campaign. Calls to the offices of Mr. Deal were not returned.
When Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who wrote the organic standards program, learned of the last-minute addition to the spending bill he sent a letter to his colleagues urging them to defeat the provisions. Both he and Representative Sam Farr, Democrat of California, plan to introduce legislation to strike the provisions from the bill.
"This whole thing is absolutely outrageous," Mr. Leahy said. "After years and years and years of work, to have someone sneak it in in the dark of night and wipe it out makes no sense. It's a poke in the eye of a lot of very hard-working organic farmers."
Ed Nicholson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods , which is test marketing organic chickens, said: "We opposed adding this language to the omnibus spending bill. We think it is important to meet the organic requirements because otherwise it will compromise the integrity of the organic standards."
The organic rules, which took effect in October, are an attempt to standardize a hodgepodge of regulations for an $11 billion industry that has been growing at the rate of 20 percent a year for a decade.
The 2002 Farm Bill directed the agriculture secretary to assess the availability of organically produced feed for livestock and poultry. The report has not been released, but information from Organic Trade Association members indicates that organic feed is commercially available at prices lower than those in the language of the exemption.
"I think this jeopardizes the whole organic industry in the United States," Mr. Farr said of the provision before Congress.