On Monday, October 21, the lead editorial in The New York Times newspaper was not about Iraq or the upcoming congressional elections. Instead, it proclaimed "A New Organic Era" - the start of a new government standard that defines and labels foods that are produced organically - that is, in natural farming systems with NO synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
The newspaper pointed out that while the health benefits of organic foods have yet to be proved, their benefits to the environment are numerous and well-documented. "For that alone," the editorial states, "organic farming deserves our support." That opinion was shared by the 100 officials, farmers, grocers and food processors who attended a Washington celebration of the new Organic Foods Production Act.
The gathering was the symbolic culmination of more than a decade of impassioned public debate, scientific panels, lobbying campaigns and congressional hearings. Finally, 12 years after the Congress passed the first Organic Foods Act, the United States has a national program for certifying and marketing its organic food production.
Back in the 1960s, organic foods were a "fringe" market popular with counterculture hippies and found only in small, specialized food stores. But today, as it caters to more mainstream consumers, the organic food industry is growing by 20 percent a year, generating an estimated $10 billion in annual profits.
In front of a sparkling display of fresh organic produce at the Whole Foods supermarket, officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Organic Standards Board expressed joy and relief - that the organic standards were finally being implemented. Board chair Dave Carter was among those leading the cheers.
"Is this a great day or what? Yeah! Let's have a little bit of enthusiasm here! This is good stuff! When you think about the growth of this business as I told the board yesterday, we're like the folks on the last leg of a relay race," he said. "The runners before us put us so far ahead that we just jog to the finish line. So many folks have done so much work to build the organic sector of the American food system."
All of the speakers at the event named individuals and groups that contributed to the organic food movement. But Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, asked the audience to remember another group.
"We need to thank the customers too, the back-to-landers, who questioned the status quo, who bought the organic beans, grain, and peanut butter and then clamored for more," she said. "The chefs and gourmands who bought the apple butter and fresh organic produce… [They] demonstrated that organic food tasted great. The new mom who chooses a baby blanket made of organic cotton keeping about a half pound of pesticides and fertilizers from entering the environment. [And] students that recognize that organic farming protects the land and the rivers flowing through the land and the creatures in the rivers and the creatures that eat the creatures in the rivers. These customers teach us that what we do matters. Our choices as business people can change us for the better."
The new government standards provide three types of labels for organically-certified foods: "100 percent organic," "organic" for items with 95 percent or more organic ingredients, and "made with organic ingredients" products with 70 to 95 percent organic content. Barbara Robinson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the new standards will be enforced in cooperation with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission; violators will face fines of up to $10,000.
"The certification process is rigorous. This industry has been doing this for quite some time," she said. "We've got a meeting of the minds here. The certifying agents are out there working with these producers. They've got to submit a documented plan and then will be visited on site. There'll actually be an inspection of the farm or the plant where the food is being manufactured [produced]. We have applicants from 120 organizations some of them are foreign countries. Some can be state governments too, by the way."
Although farms specializing in organic products comprise less than one percent of America's two million farms, the new organic standards may help these typically small, family-run operations to survive. Ms. Robinson noted that for many small organic farms, certification costs will not be a concern.
"If they have less than $5,000 in revenue, they are exempt from the financial burden of the costs of certification," she said. "They are not exempt from complying with the standards. The standards are voluntary: if you don't want to represent your products as organic - or certify them organic to the national standards - no one is going to make you. You can't just label it and call it that."
Nevertheless, Rose Koenig, an organic farmer from Gainesville, Florida, whose products have been certified locally since 1993, says some organic farmers may not want to bother with the added level of bureaucracy and paper work.
"I do have concerns from farmers who perhaps were not as knowledgeable about the program or thought someone else would cover these things for them," she said. "There will be some growers that, unfortunately, it will be a rude awakening as far as their operations and how they have to come into compliance [to meet the standards]."
For major organic food producers such as Horizon Organic Foods, of Boulder, Colorado, the new USDA standards are an added boost for their marketing efforts, as Kelly Shea explains.
"Organic sales in general have been increasing at a rate of 20 to 25 percent a year and our company has been outstripping that," she said. "Now, with the USDA sanction of the label calling [a product] organic, Horizon Organic expects even bigger growth for the products that we are currently making and a whole new line of products to come also."
Margot McShane of the Odwalla juice company in Half Moon Bay, California, shares that optimism. She says the new organic standards will lure new consumers.
"As skeptical as I was of those statistics when I first heard them, people are understanding the benefits of eating healthfully, minimally processed foods," she said. "And they're willing to support that with their pocketbooks. I think [the USDA standards] will bring more credibility to the concept of having the word 'organic' on a label. And it will give consumers some confidence that they're actually paying for something. We are the stars of the agricultural story right now. This is the fastest growing thing is agriculture. I think this acknowledgement by the government in a government regulation that this is a really important trend."
For retailers, such as Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, the new organic standards will also attract new customers, according to company vice president David Smith.
"People make lifestyle decisions on consuming natural and organic products. It's something they've generally had to go and search out," she said. "Often it's by having new children they want to find some more 'pure products.' It might be a health reason their doctor may have suggested that finding some more organic products might be a good thing for some reason. As they age, they get some sense that this might help with some issues on energy and longevity. There are an amazing number of people who just think organic and natural products taste better that they're not altered by artificial things and that the true flavor from the way they should have been created - comes through."
David Smith of the Whole Foods Market natural grocery chain, is one of many U.S. retailers, farmers and consumers applauding the October 21 launch of new federal rules governing the marketing of organic food products in the United States.