Food Fight! Federal Organic Labeling – One Big Unadulterated Mistake

Washington, D.C., May 1, 1998 — “A government attempt to define organic food is no different than a government attempt to regulate religious doctrine – at best doomed to failure, at worst likely to ignite the supermarket equivalent of a religious war,” stated Sam Kazman, general counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). In comments filed with the agency yesterday, CEI labeled USDA's involvement in the organic food issue to be a blunder of unprecedented proportions and urged USDA to tell Congress that the task that it had assigned the agency in the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act was impossible.

Given the fact that the 115,000 comments received by USDA make this the largest rulemaking in its history, the explosive potential of the issue is already evident. Inasmuch as private organic certification systems are rapidly developing, there is even less reason for federal involvement. If USDA is nonetheless going to regulate in this area, CEI suggested that it follow a number of basic principles aimed at maximizing consumer choice and producer flexibility:

  • Rather than bar certain statements regarding organic content, it should allow them so long as they are accompanied by a disclaimer such as “this label does not meet USDA specifications.”

  • USDA should avoid turning the basic concept of organic into some even more ill-defined notion of political correctness. Instead, it should adopt a flexible definition that accords with the popular notion of organic as being free of “chemical additives.”

  • USDA could establish several levels of organic quality, such as “organic plus,” indicating what techniques are used in the production.

Based on these suggestions, there is no reason to categorically rule out livestock raised in confined conditions, irradiated food, or genetically modified items. Organic food producers who do not follow such practices could tout that fact on their own labels and ads so that interested consumers would be fully informed as to their options.

CEI is a non-profit, non-partisan research and advocacy institute dedicated to the principles of free markets and limited government. For more information, contact Emily McGee at 202-331-1010.