After a decade in the works, federal standards for so-called “organic” foods were released Wednesday.

Among other requirements, the rules ban use of the new label on all foods derived through biotechnology and irradiation and meats from animals treated with antibiotics and added hormones.

The US Department of Agriculture said that once the proposal was finalized, consumers would be able to recognize organic products by a USDA shield on them, similar to the “USDA Prime” grade stamped on beef or the “USDA Grade A” and “AA” labels on egg cartons.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman called the March 7 proposal the most comprehensive and strictest organic standard in the world.

Congress ordered the USDA to develop uniform organic standards and a consumer-friendly organic label more than a decade ago on fruits, vegetables, meats or other foods grown and processed without pesticides, added hormones and other non-organic additives. But the department did not swing into serious action until 1997. Then two years ago the agency proposed a set of rules.

That move triggered hundreds of thousands of letters, faxes and emails – a record volume for food labeling proposals – from consumers, consumer activist groups and environmentalists. Among other complaints and comments, they demanded that the USDA rules also keep the organic label off foods that were genetically modified or fertilized by recycled municipal sewage sludge.

The final standards apparently incorporate those guidelines, but still uncertain is how the restrictions will apply to a variety of preservatives, other additives such as dyes and processing methods.

“They really listened and acted on all those comments,” Organic Trade Association communications director Holly Givens said Wednesday. “It has been an amazing process.”

Organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed, and the Greenfield, Mass.-based trade association said the standards adhere to “a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and (synthetic) fertilizers.”

Glickman has also said the new label won’t make claims that organic foods are any more or less hazardous or healthy for consumers than conventionally produced and processed foods.

But certified producers under the USDA standards “won’t have to make disclaimers on their label,” Givens said.

The U.S. organic industry, without uniform standards for “organic,” sold more than $6 billion worth of foods, clothing and other products in 1999, and the USDA estimates organic sales will rise another 20 percent this year, Reuters reported.

Now with about 12,000 organic farmers nationwide, the occupation is expanding by 12 percent annually, while many other sectors of farming are seeing a decline in producers.

Givens, speaking for the trade association, reported that U.S. organic product sales have grown at least 20 percent each year since 1990, resulting in an estimated $7.76 billion in retail sales this year.

But the industry said it needed uniform standards to maintain the surge in sales. The current “organic” labels fall under a hodgepodge of state, regional and private certification standards, giving rise to confusion about its meaning. California and Texas were among the first states to set stringent standards for use of the label.

The national organic standards “will strengthenconsumer confidence in U.S. organic products both domestically andinternationally,” Givens reported for the Organic Trade Association (OTA) today.

“For the first time, there will be consistent standards and labeling for all organic products marketed in the United States. No longer will there be questions concerning what ‘organic’ stands for, or whether the process has been certified,” said Katherine DiMatteo, the trade group’s executive director, representing the North American industry.

“National organic standards will protect the integrity of the organic guarantee, and prohibit the use of irradiation, sewage sludge or geneticengineering in anything labeled organic,” the organization said.

Now organic producers and processors will be required to obtain USDA certification to use the organic label, whether at wholesale, road-side stands or retail.

DiMatteo called the new regulations “a significant milestone for the U.S. organic industry. Not only will U.S. consumers benefit, but U.S. trading partners will have the reassurance that products certified as organic have met strict criteria and certification agents have been approved by USDA.”

She added, “Organic agriculture is here to stay, and will continue to contribute to the growth of family farms, to the U.S. economy and to a safer environment worldwide.”