Deceptive marketing supported by the government funded National Organic Program costs American consumers hundreds of billions of dollars and harms non-organic family farmers. It is time to end rampant abuses of the USDA Organic Seal and taxpayer-funded organic marketing program.
From 1993 to 2007 I served in the U.S. House of Representatives representing a predominantly agricultural district in the heart of California’s farming community. My work included representing those farmers’ interests on the Committee on Agriculture serving as chairman of the Livestock, Poultry and Horticulture Subcommittee which helped finalize legislation creating the U.S. National Organic Program. This law was the result of more than a decade of engagement and debate to enable the U.S. organic industry to adopt common production standards with the approval of the U.S. government and ability to carry a U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic Seal.
At the time, the fledgling organic food market was less than 1 percent of food production and consumer purchases in the U.S. Organic marketers lobbied that a common, government-endorsed approach was critical to growth and the otherwise potential failure of this lucrative niche market. Prior to the USDA NOP organic standards and certification were done by multiple private certifying groups with varying rules that left consumers distrustful as to what organic actually meant.
Bringing the imprimatur of an official USDA Organic Seal was touted as a way to provide consumers with confidence and protections against false or misleading claims when they purchased costlier organic foods. As a lifelong rancher representing conventional and organic producers it was important that any USDA program not be used to unfairly harm any farmers or disparage non-organic production methods.
From the very earliest meetings with legislators, USDA officials and organic industry representatives concerns were raised that a government organic seal might falsely convey a quality, nutrition or health distinction. Farm groups worried that conventional farming quality perceptions would be disadvantaged by a government-endorsed organic production seal. Consumer watchdog groups and food companies voiced concerns that such a seal would create marketplace confusions about important health and nutrition values of foods carrying a USDA approved organic seal.
In response USDA officials and organic industry representatives gave assurances that the organic seal would not be used to falsely convey quality, health, safety or nutrition distinctions over conventional, non-seal bearing products. Organic marketing advocates fought proposed labeling language that would make clear the seal did not convey or imply any such safety distinctions. Then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman assured us, “Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.