The Mother of All Food Fights

Someone once commented that, if the federal government regulated restaurant fare, there’d be blood in the streets. Vegetarians would be fighting with meat-eaters, Jews and Moslems would battle pork fanciers, teetotalers would have at it with imbibers, and burrito purists would persecute wrap sandwich snackers. Food peace is, in fact, one of the greatly unappreciated benefits of our relatively free restaurant market. Violent food fights are few and far between, and they tend to be limited to such government monopoly situations as prisons.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, recently came close to igniting the mother of all food fights with its organic food labelling proceeding (temporarily withdrawn as we went to press). The rulemaking drew a record 200,000 comments. At issue were such questions as whether the term "organic" could be applied to genetically modified foods, irradiated meat, and crops fertilized with municipal sludge. Even the eligibility of livestock raised under confined conditions was questioned.

One might wonder why USDA was involved in this issue in the first place. A government attempt to define organic food nowadays is little different than a government attempt to regulate religious doctrine; it might bring uniformity, but it might also ignite the supermarket equivalent of a religious war. USDA, however, had not plucked this issue out of thin air. Rather, the task was handed to it by Congress in the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. And while the agency might have told Congress "forget it," agencies are loathe to be this candid about nonsensical missions. On the contrary, a little extra turf and budget never hurt anyone in government service.

So what is organic anyway? The simplest definition is the one we learned in high school: compounds that contain carbon. That definition is also the most useless, since it encompasses just about everything we consume other than water and salt. (Is sea salt ever marketed as organic?)

The popular notion is that organic food contains no chemical additives, or at least no synthetic chemical additives. Defining just what those concepts mean in practice is hard enough. Are there any permissible measurable residues? How far down the production chain do the rules apply? If a field had synthetic pesticides applied to it several years ago, when can produce grown on it be called organic?

The controversies don’t stop there. For many people, organic has come to mean a way of life—in the words of one group, a "holistic approach" involving "key concepts such as health of the agro-system and biodiversity." The fact that these concepts may be hard to define does not mean that the people who espouse them are insincere; it simply highlights the folly of federal involvement.

A number of private organic certifying agencies have arisen. Some have stricter standards than others, and some may have standards and enforcement practices so lenient that they are practically meaningless. But to the extent that differences between them really mean something to consumers, those consumers are fully capable of distinguishing between them (or of choosing retailers that do the job for them). Regardless of whether we view the popularity of organic food as a crazy fad, a long-term market development or an evolving esthetic, two things are clear: producers and consumers are entitled to pursue it, and government should keep out of it.

The issue is complicated by the entry of several state agencies into the certification business. Consumers would be best off if these agencies refrained from declaring regional monopolies over the term "organic." Rather than requiring organic food in a given state to meet that state’s specifications, these local regimes should make compliance voluntary. If a particular organic food meets the state’s criteria, its producer could tout that fact on the label. Some state certifications might be more toutworthy than others, but that’s an issue best left to consumers. There may be confusion, at least initially, but if the issue is important it will work itself out.

This is exactly what has happened for Kosher certification. Some people couldn’t care less, some people care only that a product be labelled Kosher, and some are concerned about the strictness of the standard met by the product. For this last group there are competing rabbinical inspection boards, each with a different logo. With the possible exception of guarding against outright fraud, there is little need for government involvement.

This brings me back to my opening analogy regarding restaurant regulation and public peace. I read it somewhere, but I don’t recall where. For the first reader to identify the source, I will buy a sandwich: veggie, organic, kosher, cheese and onions, you name it.

Sam Kazman ([email protected]) is CEI’s General Counsel