Food Fight: What is Organic Food?
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GWEN IFILL: For years, health food stores had the market cornered on organically grown foods. But consumer demand, coupled with the potential for corporate profit, has now made it mainstream. Sales of fruits, vegetables, and other organic products are expected to total more than $7 billion this year. And by 2003, that figure will jump to $13 billion. Industry researchers say that about a third of U.S. consumers already buy some kind of organic food but what’s organic, and what’s not? That’s been the subject of industry debate, as well as consumer confusion.
The U.S. Agriculture Department found that out when it first proposed an organic standard in 1997. Critics attacked the agency on a number of fronts, including a decision to consider allowing genetically modified ingredients in food sold with the organic label. Today the agency revisited the issue, releasing new regulations that would be the first-ever national standard for organic products.
The rule unveiled today would allow raw products to carry the “organic” label if they are 100% organic, and not made with hormones, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizer. Processed foods could carry the label if made from 95% organic ingredients. And in a bow to critics, the new rules would prevent the use of genetically modified ingredients. Irradiation, a process used to kill bacteria and pathogens like e. Coli, would also be prohibited in food carrying the organic label, as would the use of sludge, or reprocessed sewage, as a fertilizer. Today’s decision drew praise from the organic farming industry.
KATHERINE DiMATTEO, Organic Trade Association: I think today is the day to celebrate for all of the organic industry, both processors and handlers and farmers of organic products. We have been waiting a long time for this rule, ten years as a matter of fact. We should be happy today. I think, from what I’ve heard so far, this is a rule that we can embrace and be happy with.
GWEN IFILL: But the proposal was not without its critics, including those who say genetically modified food is safe.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS, Biotechnology Industry Organization: There is quite a an indirect attempt by the organic community to indicate that these products are safer and that they are more nutritious than foods produced through more traditional means, and there is no basis in fact for that.
GWEN IFILL: The rule could take effect by the end of the year.
GWEN IFILL: With us now is the man who issued the new rules, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. Welcome Mr. Secretary. The last time you proposed these rules in 1997, they were kind of summarily thrown back in your face. So you’ve come back with a new set of stricter, tougher rules. What changed?
DAN GLICKMAN, Secretary of Agriculture: Well, these are the toughest rules until the world for organic agriculture. And the big change is that we disallowed what we called the big three. When we last proposed the rules, we left open the question of whether you could use irradiation or industrial sludge as a fertilizer or genetically modified organisms as part of the organic product. We heard loud and clear from over 275,000 different comments, which is one of the largest public comment exercises ever done in the history of the government, we heard they did not want that. And so our rules do not permit any of those things. And they’ve changed a bit from what we had before. But by and large we have support of the organic food industry.
GWEN IFILL: So do we have more science to support this or is it the public outcry in the industry?
DAN GLICKMAN: I think it’s public outcry. This is not a food safety rule. We are not saying organic food is any safer than conventional food. These are marketing rules, that the USDA is basically by putting its sign and certificate, they’re saying these foods are produced in a natural way without synthetic additives to it. It’s the same thing we do when we grade meat – we grade US prime, USDA choice, USDA select. We give people an understanding of what those terms mean so the consumer is given a clear understanding of what they’re buying. That’s exactly what we’re doing here. But this is not a science-based system that is done for food safety reasons at all.
GWEN IFILL: When I buy meat with that USDA sticker on it, I think it is safe. People who buy organic food do think it’s healthy -
DAN GLICKMAN: Well, let me put it to you like this: The USDA doesn’t inspect the meat. That’s a separate function, so all meat in this country is inspected. USDA does meat and poultry inspections. But we also put grading on meats. That’s where the prime select choice, we grade eggs based upon the size; those are done as a marketing tool for people so that consumers will know what they are. These organic rules are not safety rules, they are marketing rules. All food in this country has to make certain basic tests and certainly food that’s sold as organic will have to meet the same tests as conventional foods will.
GWEN IFILL: Over the years the reason why genetically-modified foods have caught fire is because they were also sold pas being kind of healthier and not necessarily pesticides free but the pesticides made it more disease free. Isn’t it possible some of these genetically modified foods have improved on Mother Nature?
DAN GLICKMAN: Well, it’s possible. But again, as a marketing tool, the organic food industry wanted to make sure that when people go out and see the word “organic” that it has a clear set of standards what it means and we know that it clearly cannot included genetically engineered organisms. Now I happen to be a fan of genetic engineering, and I think it’s going to have great promise to feeding the world in a sustainable, friendly way, but those are separate issues dealing with conventional foods and they don’t affect the certification standards we’re putting on organic foods.
GWEN IFILL: What do people see on the supermarket now, an organic sticker that says USDA approved?
DAN GLICKMAN: Right now they don’t see anything.
GWEN IFILL: What will they see -
DAN GLICKMAN: They’ll see an organic sticker that may be 100% organic, it may say organic, it may say made with organic products, or it may have nothing on there, except on the side where certain of the ingredients are organic, depending upon the percentage of organic materials in there. But right now you can go in and a product can say organic and it could be 2 percent organic, or 0 percent organic.
GWEN IFILL: What’s to stop the producer for putting them on anyway?
DAN GLICKMAN: There will be some standards here, and there will be some penalties here for producers who put things on there that are not accurate. But for the most part right now the consumers have no knowledge that anybody is looking at anything that is being sold that says organic to make sure that it is.
GWEN IFILL: Are you setting the bar so high now that farmers who are able to say do mostly organic kind of product are not going to be able to compete or be able to qualify for that sticker?
DAN GLICKMAN: Well, these are pretty strict standards. We’re going to have 90 days of further comment period from the public where folks will be able to comment and to determine whether there are some changes that we need to make in these basic rules. But largely what we have done here is this: The organic food industry, which is a rapidly growing part of agriculture and a very profitable part of agriculture, came to us and said we basically think we have a market here, there’s a lot of reasons why consumers like our products. It may be because they like natural product, they may like products that are environmentally positive, using less pesticides, whatever their reasons, and we need to you do what you do with grading of meat, grading of eggs, we need you to regulate the label on how a product is manufactured. It’s a process is what we’re labeling. If the farmer complies with a certain process, he will get the certificate on there. And we think that this can be a very profitable and effective part of U.S. Agriculture.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about the marketing of it, isn’t part of your concern as well marketing it abroad, trade concerns with Europe, where their standards are much more strict than even what you’re proposing to do.
DAN GLICKMAN: In the organic area we’re stricter than the Europeans are. They have 70 percent on organic and we will go basically to 95 percent standard on there.
GWEN IFILL: That will improve our ability to trade?
DAN GLICKMAN: I think we’re seeing the organic market grow in the world, so it will make it easier for U.S. organic farmers and that is going to grow considerably in the years to come for us to be able to sell products overseas.
GWEN IFILL: Is science ahead of the curve in some ways on American public opinion on the question of whether say irradiated food is good or bad?
DAN GLICKMAN: I would say this, there is no question, the public is concerned about food safety. And the public generally has confidence in the FDA and USDA and other food safety agencies but the science is moving ahead very, very quickly in these areas. And it’s up to us to make sure the public has accurate information about food safety issues.
GWEN IFILL: Are people right to be concerned about those issues? And is that something that you as the Department of Agriculture can even address?
DAN GLICKMAN: People are very right to be concerned about food safety issues. It’s one of the top issues on people’s mind. In this country people have pretty good confidence that their food is safe. And we have the safest food in the world, in my judgment. But we need to keep dong better. That’s what we’re trying to at the FDA and USDA through a science-based food inspection system. I go back to what organic does. Organic is not a food safety issue, although some people, they might think it is, or they might think using less pesticides or less synthetic things on their food is a positive thing. But it gives consumers an additional choice, an informed choice about a food that they may want to buy. And it also helps agriculture. Right now small and medium sized farmers are having a terrible problem surviving in this country and around the world. This is a way for the farmer to get a higher share of the consumer dollar without having to give more of it to the manufacturer or other parts of agriculture.
GWEN IFILL: I hate to keep coming back to the food safety issue, but when people think about foods and what the government’s role is in regulating foods, they think about things like e.Coli and salmonella. What you’re proposing what not change government regulation that would stop those diseases at all.
DAN GLICKMAN: It doesn’t change them at all. Again, we primarily deal with meat and poultry, USDA. All of that is inspected and it will continue to be inspected. And, in fact, we’re having some real success in reducing the amount of salmonella in both meat and poultry.
GWEN IFILL: Frito Lay, a big food producer of snack foods, announced I guess it was last month that they were going to ask their growers to try to use organically grown materials. Does that make a difference? Or is that just a kind of — is that a PR thing or is that something -
DAN GLICKMAN: Right now there’s a lot of concern and confusion about genetically modified organisms out there. The Europeans are having some resistance to them, and that’s causing some concerns with large food manufacturers about selling product. After all, Frito Lay, if it sells its potato chips or Fritos, whatever they sell, overseas, they want to make sure there’s a market there for them, and so because of the European resistance to genetically modified organisms, there is some attempt on their part and others to go to using either organic or non GMO corn or whatever products they use in their food. But I think ultimately this is going to settle out. Most people are going to believe that genetically modified organisms can be safe and effective and nutritious and also environmentally positive. But there will also be a group of people who want non-synthetic or natural foods to eat. And that’s what we’re trying to do here is to make sure the market is clear and they have the ability to sell these products at home and around the world.
GWEN IFILL: If, indeed, companies like Frito Lay, we hate to beat up on one manufacturer but a company like Frito Lay sees that it’s in their marketing interest to make these adjustments, what’s the need for government regulation?
DAN GLICKMAN: Well, again, I should have said this in the beginning. The need is Congress orders us to do this. Now, let me say this: A lot of people are both positive and critical to what we’re doing. But in 1990 the Congress passed a bill, I was in the Congress then, I think I voted for this bill, that mandated that the Department of Agriculture come up with organic standards. We’re not just doing this on our own. The Congress, the efforts of Senator Leahy and others decided this is what they wanted to do to grow a new market in agriculture. So, it’s taken us a long ten years. I had more hair when I started this process than I do right now. It’s taken us a long time but we’re finally getting there.
GWEN IFILL: Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, thank you very much.
DAN GLICKMAN: You’re welcome, Gwen.