This spring officials in the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture stirred up a hornet’s nest. As the legal guardians of the word organic, they issued four technical interpretations of federal regulations that make it a little easier for the less-than-pristine to insinuate themselves into the burgeoning organic market–way too easy, according to vocal organic advocates.

The first three interpretations came on April 13, packaged as “guidance” documents for the certifiers who do the actual work of determining which farms’ products qualify as organic. Milk from a cow treated with antibiotics can now be sold as organic 12 months after treatment ends, even though well-run organic farms rarely if ever need to resort to antibiotics. It’s now OK to feed fish meal as a protein supplement to organically raised livestock, even though natural cattle don’t eat fish, there are no organic standards for it, and it can be contaminated. And now anyone can sell pet food and fish as “organic” because no standards for those categories have been written yet, even though letting just anyone call these products organic will give a competitive edge to corner-cutting operations, confuse consumers, and devalue the term overall. On April 23 these edicts were followed by a “compliance and enforcement directive” allowing organic farmers to use certain pesticides even if they can’t determine what all the ingredients are.

In a society where few people grow their own food and only members of a community-supported agriculture operation know the farmers who grow it for them, you have to be able to trust the label. Who wants to pay extra for organic if it might be just the usual chemical-laden goods in a crunchy package? Yet each of the four interpretations seems to poke more holes in the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, which was supposed to keep the green-and-white organic label meaningful. Adding insult to injury, the National Organic Program hadn’t warned anyone these bombshells were coming, nor had it bothered to ask the opinion of its volunteer expert advisers on the National Organic Standards Board. No wonder organic farmers and consumers across the country responded as if they’d been bombed by their own air force.

Not that organic insiders were surprised. They’ve long grumbled quietly that the USDA’s approach to organics is cavalier and its regulations are lenient, showing little respect for organic agriculture either as an environmental philosophy or as the business sector that sells 1.5 percent of all U.S. food. The organic folks have always been in a double bind: If they keep quiet in public they may allow the bureaucrats to weaken the label, eroding trust in organic-labeled food. If they criticize the National Organic Program in public that too may erode trust in the label. But the new interpretations were too much.

On April 30 dozens of desperate organic farmers and consumers took advantage of a long-scheduled National Organic Standards Board meeting in Chicago to express their outrage. Mark Kastel of southwest Wisconsin’s Cornucopia Institute was first to the microphone and set the tone, saying, “We are running the risk of destroying the credibility of organic agriculture in the eyes of the consumers.” He was followed by representatives of the Consumers Union, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, the Food Animal Concerns Trust, Indiana Certified Organic, and many more upset people, including farmers and certifiers from Vermont, Florida, California, Oregon, and Illinois. All accused the USDA of violating the spirit of organic food production; many contended that its directives violated the law itself.

Not at all, replied USDA spokesperson Joan Shaffer. The National Organic Program had merely been restating the plain language of the law and the regulations. “There is nothing new,” she said, “just an attempt to be clear about what is covered.” This statement was apparently designed to justify the program’s failure to give any public notice or invite public comment–nothing to talk about here, folks; please move on. The directives themselves aren’t that crude. They carefully cite relevant portions of the law and regulations, state that their interpretation is, for instance, “consistent with OFPA and 7 CFR Part 205,” then offer an interpretation that’s at best debatable.

Lynn Coody of Oregon’s Organic Agsystems Consulting found plenty to debate. The April 23 directive allowing farmers to use pesticides with unknown ingredients, she said, “forces certifiers to act in violation of the Organic Foods Production Act.” Section 205.201 of that regulation requires every would-be organic producer to present a list of all substances used on the farm, including what each one is made of and where it comes from. For the farm to be certified organic, everything on the list has to pass muster. Yet now the USDA was telling its certifiers to approve lists that contain unknown items.

For Bush watchers the April decrees were just another day at the office. (Disdain for public participation? Check. Bald claims that new policies change nothing? Check.) In a May call to action the Organic Consumers Association laid the blame at the president’s door, fulminating, “Corporate agriculture and the biotech lobby have apparently decided that strict organic farming practices and the booming organic market constitute a threat to their bottom line, and have called on their friends in the Bush administration USDA to degrade organic standards.”

That rhetoric may rally the troops, but it ignores history. Only six years ago it was the Clinton administration’s USDA that was trying to degrade organic standards when it proposed regulations–not just interpretations–that would have allowed “organic” foods to be grown using genetic technology and sewage sludge, which is often contaminated with toxins. A record outpouring of 278,000 public comments blocked that proposal.

On the face of it, the USDA’s contrariness is puzzling. Industry-specific regulation is all about protecting niches–keeping out the riffraff and limiting competition–and what better way to protect a niche than to keep the bar high? Strong regulations deter newcomers, whether they’re low-power radio broadcasters, nonunion Mexican truckers, or agribusinesses. Moreover, regulators overseeing a particular business niche usually go along with what the businesses being regulated want. (The issues are more complicated when regulations cut across industry lines, as the EPA’s and OSHA’s do.) Most regulators understand and sympathize with those engaged in the regulated business, in part because many of them either came from or are moving into it. This sympathy results in what’s called “regulatory capture,” and it’s made many a career.

The organic industry may well be paying for a strategic decision it made–or gamble it took–back in the 80s, when it started lobbying Congress to establish industry standards by passing the Organic Foods Production Act. Now that the law has been implemented, the organic movement finds itself being regulated by an agency–the USDA–that was long ago captured by chemical-intensive, get-big-or-get-out agribusiness. As a result, organic farmers, marketers, and consumers have to stay vigilant regardless of which party is in power. New ideas about organic farming practices will continue to generate hard questions about how to interpret the regulations–and the regulators doing the interpreting aren’t necessarily the organic farmers’ friends.

News of the uproar that began in Chicago on April 30 spread quickly to Capitol Hill, and on May 26 USDA secretary Ann Veneman told reporters, “I have directed the Agriculture Marketing Service [under which the National Organic Program operates] to withdraw the statement of clarification and…to work with the National Organic [Standards] Board and the industry to determine the best solutions to the issues that have been raised.”

Everyone relaxed a bit, and on June 2 the Los Angeles Times reported that Veneman had “rescinded the directives.” On June 9 a few National Organic Standards Board members and industry representatives met with National Organic Program staff in Washington to discuss how they could work together better.

Another happy ending? Not quite. At the June 9 meeting it became apparent that everyone had relaxed too soon. The four April rulings are no longer on the National Organic Program’s Web site, but it seems they’re still policy, Veneman’s statement notwithstanding. James Riddle, the scrupulously diplomatic vice chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, was at the meeting and says by e-mail that the agency “sticks to their interpretations, only now they are no longer posted. The NOSB is in the process of reviewing and responding to them, but I don’t hold out much hope for changing their minds.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Wesley Bedrosian.