As new organic standards come into force in the US, producers and processors must adapt or fall behind. James C. Webster outlines the difficulties and discusses the role of the national organic authorities as the industry works to meet the new standards.

Producing for the US organic food market for the first time may be costly and complex for both US and overseas food manufacturers and marketers used to the conventional foods market. To adapt production techniques and labelling to new strictures set out by the US department of agriculture governing organic food, US experts advise both careful study of the standards and understanding the unique culture surrounding organic foods.

When USDA’s regulation becomes fully effective in October 2002, ingredients in organic food will be required to meet both Food and Drug Administration standards of safety and identity for all foods as well as the new, formal USDA organic standards. These will require at least 95% of ingredients in packages with “organic” on the label be certified by an agency accredited by USDA and each processing plant will be required to follow an approved “organic system plan.”

Speaking at a recent seminar sponsored by Prime Label Consultants, Inc., of Washington, D.C., an experienced food industry lawyer and the senior USDA official responsible for organic foods counselled companies to take particular care to prevent even inadvertent contact with prohibited materials. Unapproved materials include all irradiated or genetically modified and most synthetic ingredients, any grown with sewage sludge fertilisers, and even many traditional chemicals used in food processing such as cleansers and disinfectants. Only synthetic materials specifically approved by the National Organic Standards Board will be permitted.

Keith Jones, director of the USDA’s National Organic Programme, said his agency would have a dual role over the next 18 months as the industry works to meet the standards. First, it would focus on accreditation of certifying agents.

“We expect to have the first certifying agents accredited about this time next year,” he said. Second, USDA will assist the National Organic Standards Board in considering requests for materials to be added to the national list of approved substances. Unless added to that list, many familiar synthetic substances will be prohibited from organic processing after October 20, 2002 – the date the first products bearing the “USDA Organic” seal reach the market.

The Standards Board will approve applications only if it is satisfied they are consistent with organic production, said Richard Siegel, an attorney with the Olsson, Frank and Weeda law firm in Washington, which specialises in food regulation. To be approved, a synthetic substance must be necessary for production and no “natural” substitutes are available. The board “will be very busy” for the next several months, he said.

Companies approaching organic food for the first time “will have a very big learning curve,” Siegel said, counselling them to join the Organic Trade Association to get to know the “core group” of people he called “keepers of the values” for the movement. “This is a very much a people’s movement,” he said, and conventional food companies “have to be prepared to move into a very murky area. It will take a while to understand this mentality.” The “organic family,” he said, is a “spin-off from the environmental family.”

Both Jones and Siegel offered the view that the new regulations would increase the rate of growth of organic food sales in the US. The market had grown from about US$1bn in 1990, when Congress enacted the law requiring the new standards, to US$6bn or US$7bn last year, Siegel said, citing the industry’s own estimates. Such rapid growth “shows great consumer interest” and has “made it attractive to mainstream farmers and food companies as well,” he added. “It is a very significant niche, not a minor one.”

Siegel noted the recent movement into organic food products by several major US food manufacturers, including ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Heinz and Mars. He also pointed out food companies in other countries have expressed interest in finding USDA-accredited agents to certify their exports will meet requirements for organic label claims. Among those certification agents most likely to win USDA accreditation are 15 existing state government agencies, 38 non-profit groups and 9 for-profit companies which now certify organic food under existing state and local procedures which will be largely supplanted by the national standards. “These are the people with the greatest body of experience,” Siegel said, “the people who have made the organic food industry.”

By James C. Webster, former assistant secretary for governmental and public affairs, US Department of Agriculture