January 4, 1998
But the Rule proposes other regulations that may have even more sweeping implications. These regulations, should they become law, could affect every American, not just those interested in organic food. The regulations, as proposed, would eliminate any real differentiation of food products through labeling thus ending consumer ability to "boycott" or "buycott" food products with their shopping dollars to support environmental goals. In other words it could end all eco-labeling.
In the labeling section of the Program Overview the proposed rule suggests regulations regarding the "Use of Terms of Statements That Directly or Indirectly Imply That a Product is Organically Produced and Handled (Section 205.103). In this section of the rule USDA proposes to regulate "the labeling or market information that directly or indirectly imply organic production and handling practices" and then goes on to propose that "any terms or phrases that directly or indirectly imply that a product has been organically produced or handled would be prohibited from being used on the label, labeling or market information of products that are not produced in accordance with the Act and the regulations".
The Proposed Rule then goes on to give some examples of the kind of labels that would be prohibited under this regulation. They include: "produced without synthetic pesticides", "produced without synthetic fertilizers", "raised without synthetic chemicals" "pesticide-free farm", "no drugs or growth hormones used", "raised without antibiotics", "raised without hormones", "no growth stimulants administered", "ecologically produced", "sustainably harvested", and "humanely raised".
These broad, prohibitory regulations, should they become law, would force many U.S. companies and grower associations who currently produce and label eco-products to remove them from the market. Several examples come to mind. Coleman's Natural Beef which produces a product without growth hormones or antibiotics. The North American Bison Cooperative that markets a hormone free and irradiation free bison product. Numerous companies and grower associations that are presently marketing products produced with IPM technologies. Perhaps even companies using the "dolphin safe" and "SmartWood" labels to differentiate sustainable fishing and forestry products would be in jeopardy.
The proposed rule also proposes regulations that would prohibit private organic certification companies from certifying or labeling products that differentiate "any farming or handling requirements other than those provided for" in the government's regulations. (Sec. 205.301) This means that if the government insists on allowing sewage sludge, irradiation, genetically engineered organisms, piperonyl butoxide and other materials and technologies that the National Organic Standards Board specifically rejected for use in organic production, than no one can certify any product that is free of these practices. Nor could certifiers certify a product as meeting the requirements for biodynamic farming, since its methods include requirements not "provided for" in the rule.
Such regulations not only take power and preference away from consumers, and limit the market opportunities of producers, they restrict commercial free speech and leave chemically sensitive and allergic people without any reliable choices in the marketplace that can potentially protect them from harm.
Ironically, the proposed rule does not place such restrictions on imported products or on foreign certifiers. The only requirement is that imported products "at least" meet the requirements of the US organic regulation. In effect, then, the regulations will encourage consumers to look for imported organic products, certified by foreign certifiers which can differentiate themselves from the US organic rule by prescribing additional requirements. And it will force international certifiers doing business in the United States to move out of the country if they want to uphold the standards they have become identified with over the past few decades. In order to retain the value of their trademarks, many of which are now recognized throughout the world for disallowing numerous practices and substances that the proposed rule would allow, those international certifiers would be forced to operate from another country. Other countries not only allow private certifiers to uphold higher standards but some actively encourage it.
Alternatively, US certifiers could certify products destined for export to a higher standard, but would not be allowed to so represent those same products in the domestic market. In point of fact if the standards in the rule are not changed, US organically labeled products could rarely enter export markets based on US certification since sewage sludge, etc. etc. have always been prohibited in organic production in most foreign markets.
This potentially creates a laughable scenario wherein US certifiers could certify product to meet export standards, see those products sold into foreign markets from which they could then be sold back into the US. Yet it would be illegal to market those same products directly in the US.
In short, this proposed rule does not serve the interests of American producers or consumers. It will be a boon for the conventional food system which has, for years, sought to eliminate any differentiation in the marketplace that threatens their market share.