New federal rules that define what makes milk and meat organic have natural food advocates optimistic that the government is committed to ensuring the label means something.
U.S. consumers bought $24 billion worth of organic products in 2008. But for many, the purchases came with uncertainty about what they were getting for their money.
"During the Clinton and the Bush administrations there wasn't a lot of teeth in the enforcement aspect of it," said Tom Willey, 61, an organic fruit and vegetable farmer in Madera, Calif. "Things have kind of been in a morass as far as enforcement for a number of years, but now we're very hopeful that will change."
The optimism is based on U.S. Department of Agriculture rules announced Feb. 12 that require livestock to be grazed on pasture for at least four months a year to qualify for an organic meat or dairy label. The animals also must get at least 30 percent of their feed from grazing. Previous rules required only that animals have "access to pasture."
Organic advocates also point to a USDA decision last August to audit the National Organic Program because of self-admitted problems with reliability and transparency. The program is made up of 100 organic certifying organizations.
The audit, conducted by the Commerce Department, will be made public and will include recommendations for improving standards.
Any mass-marketed product that bills itself as "100 percent organic" or "organic" is subject to USDA organic certification and bears the agency's seal.
Although products that carry the seal are produced on farms and by manufacturers that already are subject to inspections by USDA's organic certifiers, critics have argued the agency's definitions are not tailored narrowly enough and that some products are organic in name only. Many believe the new meat and milk rules are proof the Obama administration is willing to get tougher.
The USDA's recent moves have been praised by both smaller farmers and industry groups, such as the Organic Trade Association, which represents many larger operations.
"The sharpening of standards is something that we've wanted ever since, well, the organic laws came into existence," said Jim Goodman, a 55-year-old organic dairy farmer from Hillsboro, in southwestern Wisconsin. "The new standards actually define what organic cattle have to do and that's a huge step."
In announcing the new standards, Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of the USDA, called the new rules a "down payment" on future reforms of organic practices. She said she expects more rules in the coming months.
Merrigan has a background in organics, serving as a key agriculture staffer to Sen. Patrick Leahy from 1987-1992 and helping develop the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. She and Miles McEvoy, the USDA's deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, enjoy strong reputations in the organic industry.
"These are people who believe in organics, real organics, and aren't hostile to organics," said Mark Kastel, the co-director of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a staunch advocate for smaller organic farmers.
Organic farming advocates also note smaller, more cosmetic steps the administration has taken to promote the industry, such as first lady Michelle Obama's organic garden at the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's decision to plant an organic garden at USDA headquarters.
The big test, however, will be how the administration enforces violations, advocates said. So far, they said, the administration appears more willing to take action.
Kastel said during the Bush administration, the Cornucopia Institute filed numerous complaints about potential organic labeling violations and waited months to get any response.
Late last year, he said, the group sent a complaint about labeling in advertising for soy milk sold at Target, and the USDA responded within about 24 hours. USDA resolved the issue when Target Corp. admitted it had erred in promoting the product as organic and promised to re-evaluate its oversight of organically labeled products.
Kastel said his group was pleased by the government's response but intend to keep a close eye on the USDA.
"We'll be watching very carefully," Kastel said. "We want to see if they continue to follow through."
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