Organic food -- food as free as possible from contamination with harmful environmental, agricultural and pharmaceutical chemicals -- is of vital concern to many HEAL members. Unlike other groups, whose concerns about organic food stem from broad environment and health concerns, HEAL's membership represents a group for whom organic food is not a strong preference, but a survival issue.
In December 1997, the Department of Agriculture posted its proposed rule for setting a federal standard for organic foods. In April 1998 the public comment period on the rule closed. HEAL's Governing Board made the following comment to the USDA regarding their proposed organic food standard:
"The Human Ecology Action League (HEAL) has a deep concern regarding the USDA's proposed standards for organic foods. In essence, the USDA rules would change the standards of purity for organic foods as we now know them. Many HEAL members are very sensitive to the low-level effects of pharmaceuticals, pesticides and other chemicals which would enter the food chain under the rules now proposed by the USDA.
"By allowing the use of genetic engineering, sewage sludge, the intensive confinement of animals, and irradiation in processing, truly organic foods would no longer be available, which would place the health of HEAL members in jeopardy. "It is commendable to try to set nationwide standards but not at the expense of the present organic farming industry and the ultimate consumers. If the proposed USDA rules go into effect, HEAL members will not have available a commercial source for 100% organic food products.
"It is regrettable that the USDA plans to label processed foods "organic" even though they may contain up to 5% of non-organic products. The term "organic" should not be used unless the product is 100% organic. The present organic food industry has not operated in that manner for over 20 years. This change would mean that HEAL members could never reply upon using processed foods because of low-level chemical effects from non-organic products."
In early May 1998, Chemical & Engineering News reported that USDA had received an estimated 200,000 comments about the proposed standard. The overwhelming majority of the comments objected to permitting foods raised on sewage sludge, or irradiated or bioengineered foods, to be considered organic. C&E News reported that "All observers expect the [final] rule to reflect the preponderance of comments" on these issues. However, this may not be enough to satisfy the organic food industry. Although Congress established a National Organic Standards Board in the 1990 Organic Food Production Act, USDA largely ignored the Board's recommendations in its proposed rule. Secretary Dan Glickman has stated that USDA's goal is "to develop a final rule that the organic community and all the public can embrace." As of late May, the Organic Trade Association had not specified acceptable changes in the proposed rule, but had already begun to discuss setting up an independent accreditation board for organic producers.
Stay tuned: USDA's final organic food rule is expected to be out by the end of 1998.
-- HEAL Public Information Committee
-- HEAL Governing Board, Comment to USDA regarding proposed organic food standard. April 1998.
B. Hileman, Chemical & Engineering News, May 11, 1998.