Organic Food Rules Look Kosher

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it will make fundamental revision to its proposed national standards for organic foods. Its backtracking is in response to thousands of written comments that indicated dissatisfaction on the part of organic adherents. Proponents objected to the fact that the proposed rule did not, for example, forbid the use of either genetically engineered products or food irradiation. The new rule will, presumably, disallow these processes.

USDA will thus ignore the scientific evidence that such processes are safe, and instead enforce a belief system promoted by many with near religious fervor rather than focus on food safety and wholesomeness.

Proponents of organic agriculture focus on how food is produced and handled to determine if the product is suitable, rather than on the inherent quality of the food itself. If man made pesticides or fertilizers are used in the production of produce, or antibiotics are used to combat animal disease or accelerate the growth of food animals, the foods get thumbs down. Now, proponents of organic food also are pressuring USDA to exclude genetically engineered foods and those that have been pasteurized through the process of irradiation not because the foods aren t otherwise organic, but because they don t like these processes.

Their opposition seems more than a little misplaced, because what they are asking USDA to do and what it seems it will do is enforce a set of beliefs. Many of these beliefs have no scientific basis and government should not embrace them.

Organic purists are free, of course, to do what religious groups have done set up their own certification bodies to ensure their food is produced in a manner consistent with their own beliefs.

Observant Jews, for example, follow a system of dietary laws that includes proscriptions on eating certain animals products and on certain combinations of foods.

Further, the production and processing of kosher foods must meet strict standards, as must the sale and service of kosher foods in retail establishments. There are even rules on the proper, humane, way of slaughtering livestock and poultry.

Interestingly, the government has had virtually nothing to do with the establishment, certification or oversight of the means or sites of production and sale of kosher foods. Such sites must, of course, meet appropriate federal and state guidelines for proper handling and packaging of foods, but governmental oversight stops short of mandating the specifics of how kosher foods are produced. Perhaps because the government has not been involved, the kosher food marketplace works exceedingly well.

Is kosher food more expensive than its non kosher counterpart? Yes. But to those for whom such dietary laws are important, the increased oversight is worth the increased price.

Similarly, would independent certification make organic foods more expensive than non organic counterparts? It already is often substantially so. Might the price increase even more? Possibly. But for those who insist on the enforcement of the narrowest possible definition of organic, the added cost would be a reasonable price to pay.

In response to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the USDA promulgated a set of rules designed to become the national standard for labeling produce and other agricultural products organic. The proposed rules allowed only specified products to be used in the production of crops labeled organic. For example, pesticides were restricted to items like herbicidal and insecticidal soaps, while other pesticides products would not be allowed. Similarly, antibiotics might be used to treat illness in food animals, but not as growth promoters, and a mandated withdrawal period would have to be observed before the milk or meat from treated animals could be sold.

Thus, the USDA drafted a rule that is certainly in line with the most commonly accepted parameters of organic foods.

If the states or organic food producers and promoters feel the rules aren t restrictive enough, they are allowed to establish more narrow definitions, so long as they don t interfere with interstate commerce in USDA certified products. For example, an organic producer might use a label in addition to the USDA label to indicate that no genetically engineered organisms are used or present in his product.

As long as the USDA organic seal is present, the purchaser knows that certain standards have been met in the production of the product. Additional seals or labels may be used to further restrict the organic definition, as long as the information on them is true.

The bottom line is that we have a bad law that mandated action by the USDA. That agency has responded in a reasonable manner. Now, USDA is succumbing to pressure from organic adherents. Wouldn t it make more sense for those who insist on stricter guidelines to establish, and pay for their own certification standards. Insisting that USDA impose such standards on the entire country just isn t kosher.