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USDA rescinds changes to organic rules

The USDA has decided to reverse its new planned rules for organic food that would have allowed limited use of pesticides and antibiotics. The intended changes prompted outrage from consumers and organic farmers.
Pam and Jeff Riesgraf, organic farmers in Jordan, Minn., had criticized the USDA's revisions to organic rules.Jim Mone / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Agriculture Department is rescinding new organic food guidelines that allowed limited use of pesticides and antibiotics, which had prompted criticism from some consumer groups and organic farmers.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the action Wednesday after critics said the guidelines devalued the organic label. The department's Agricultural Marketing Service will work with industry representatives to clarify the standards, she said.

"We are taking action to rescind what AMS has done," Veneman said in a telephone briefing. She said the guidelines had created "a tremendous amount of interest and concern."

The announcement was greeted with approval at the Organic Trade Association, an industry group. "This sounds like a step in the right direction," said spokeswoman Holly Givens.

Agriculture Department spokeswoman Julie Quick said the department's National Organic Program, which oversees organic certification, will work with industry officials, including members of the National Organic Standards Board, which recommends policy to the department.

Asked if the guidelines were dead, Quick said that would depend on what comes out of the discussions department officials will have with the board and the industry.

Consumer and organic groups have said the department should have checked with the board before issuing its guidance.

The guidelines and enforcement directives would have allowed producers to use pesticides that may contain inert chemical ingredients if a "reasonable effort" cannot determine what the ingredients are.

They also would have let milk from cows treated with antibiotics be sold under the department's organic seal, provided the animal did not receive antibiotics for 12 months. They also would have allowed ground fish be used as a protein supplement in livestock feed.

A scientist at Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., Urvashi Rangan, said the provisions were weakening the value of the label, and he cited fishmeal as an example. Fish are not certified as organic, and some fish contain chemicals such as mercury, she said.