U.S. regulators Friday bowed to a torrent of public protest and abandoned an earlier proposal that would have allowed organic food to contain human waste, irradiation or bio-engineered material.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said it would start over again in drafting standards for organic foods, a fast-growing industry with sales expected to reach $4 billion this year.The USDA announcement followed a storm of protest that included musician Willie Nelson, dozens of federal lawmakers, the entire Vermont legislature, and a grassroots write-in campaign by 200,000 organic farmers, consumers and environmentalists.
"The department was stunned at the amount of negative publicity they got over the proposed rule," said one congressional aide. "The USDA is very concerned that it has lost the confidence of the organic farming industry."
The organic industry, which produces meats, vegetables, soaps, textiles and other products, asked the USDA to establish national standards because of the patchwork of state and regional rules governing organic products.
The controversy intensified to the point where even Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman recently joked in a speech that he had picked up a protest form letter from a display at a local organic food store where he shops.
Ironically, the USDA had not planned to include what became known as "the big three issues" in its proposed rules last December. But other members of the Clinton administration pressed to have sewage sludge, irradiation and bioengineered plants included in the proposed rule.
Those practices are "safe and have important roles to play in agriculture, but they neither fit current organic practices nor meet consumer expectations about organics," Glickman said. "USDA is committed to developing national organic standards that organic farmers and consumers will embrace," he added in a statement explaining the department's decision.