WASHINGTON – A loophole in federal rules on organic foods would allow Robin Way to sell her Cecil County chickens as organic, even though she feeds them conventional feed. But Way will not do so.
“If it’s truly organic it has to be fed truly organic feed,” she said.
Maryland lawmakers and others agree. At a news conference Wednesday, they said they hope to overturn a law that allows farmers to sell organic meat and poultry from livestock that was given nonorganic feed.
The language, added at the last moment to the omnibus appropriations bill by Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., last month, changes the national organic standards that the U.S. Department of Agriculture put in place last fall. Deal introduced the change to benefit a poultry company in his state.
“It’s a sneak attack on the American consumer,” Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, D-Kensington, said Wednesday.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced bills in both houses of Congress last month to overturn Deal’s rider. Maryland’s senators are among the 65 cosponsors of the Senate version of the bill. The House bill had 46 cosponsors as of Tuesday.
Repealing what Van Hollen called “a fundamentally dishonest” rider has garnered a great deal of support from farmers in Maryland and nationwide.
“We’re extremely upset that the rider was allowed to happen,” said Valerie Frances, coordinator of the Maryland Organic Certification Advisory Committee of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “The repeal is a great thing.”
The Georgia company, Fieldale Farms, had complained that organic chicken feed was too expensive compared to conventional feed.
In a statement, Deal said that livestock producers should not be treated differently from fruit and vegetable producers, who can use nonorganic seeds if organic ones are not available. His change allows farmers to use conventional feed until the USDA completes a study on the availability of organic feed.
That study, required by the 2002 Farm Bill, was nearly finished when the appropriations bill was passed, said USDA spokesman Jerry Redding. The rider added a requirement that the USDA include pricing information on organic feed in the study. Redding said the study is being reviewed and will be released in the very near future.
Organic beef grower Nick Maravell, who has farms in Frederick and Montgomery counties, worried that the issue would create doubt about the organic label and seal.
That worry is shared by others, from National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson to Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman to Maryland lawmakers.
“This is about labeling, so people know what they’re getting,” Van Hollen said.
While the bills to repeal the rider appear to have strong support, passing them could take some time because lawmakers are busy with the war.
In the House, any repeal would need to be attached to a related bill. Supporters may not be able to attach it to war appropriations, said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., who introduced the House bill.
The rider, with the rest of the omnibus appropriations bill, will expire at the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, whether Congress does anything about it now or not, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. But he said Congress should close the loophole now.
“It’s like Dracula. You don’t just put it in the coffin,” Leahy said. “I want to make sure the stake — the organic steak — is there.”