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Fixing the organic label

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They cost more, but sales of organic foods are rising. Even in this down economy, organic food sales are going up three times faster than other foods. As Julie Grant reports, that's happening as the government is working to make sure everything that's labeled organic actually is organic.

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Transcript: Julie Grant, May 4, 2010

Near where I live in Ohio, it costs more to buy a half-gallon of organic milk than it does to buy a whole gallon of regular milk. So, that circular green and white seal that says “USDA Organic” better mean something.

Mark Kastel is director of the Cornucopia Institute. It’s an organic industry watchdog group. He says over the past decade, more and more people are buying organic – and the market share has grown. So, big business has moved in to get a piece of the action.

Kastel says some so-called organic cows were being raised on factory farms instead of on pastures.

"You really can't milk 2-thousand or 5-thousand or 7-thousand cows and move them back and forth every day to pasture to graze them every day as the organic law requires."

Kastel says part of the problem with milk production was that the rules didn’t specifically state how long cows had to be out on pasture. So, some weren’t getting any time eating grass – and were still being certified organic.

Kastel was among those who complained to the folks at the USDA’s national organic program about this.

"Corporate investments in large factory farms that are gaming the system and creating the illusion of practicing organics."

That’s one reason why the Cornucopia Institute requested an audit of the National Organic Program.

"We need the force of law to come down and make sure that the organic label still means something."

The USDA has responded. It started an audit of the organic program last year. At the same time, the program got more money… and hired a new director.

Miles McAvoy has inspected hundreds of organic farms and is now in charge of the national organic program. His first order of business was to help with that audit of the program. It found a lot of problems. But McAvoy is glad it was done.

"Basically, the report to me is a roadmap. It really outlines a lot of the fundamental problems that the national organic program has had and so it enables us to focus on those areas that really need to be addressed right away."

The audit found that the organic program wasn’t cracking down on producers that labeled their foods organic, even if they violated organic rules. It found that the program wasn’t processing complaints in a timely way, and it wasn’t doing a good job inspecting farms in foreign countries. That meant that products imported from China and elsewhere might have the organic label, but not have been inspected properly.

McAvoy says the program just didn’t have enough money before to do everything it was supposed to do.

"Given the resources that the program had at the time, they did the best job that they could..."

Until recently, the national organic program had only eight people on staff.

McAvoy plans to hire more than 20 this year. And his office has already addressed most of the issues from the audit.

Organic watchdog Mark Kastel is pleased with the direction of the program. He says even the issue of cow pasture has been resolved. Milk labeled organic must now come from cows that are allowed to graze at least 120 days each year.

Kastel says the problems have come from a few bad actors. He says people are willing to pay more for organics because they want to support certain types of farms:

"I think we're in a position with the current administration in Washington where we'll be able to make sure those promises are kept."

So the USDA Certified Organic label does mean something when you’re handing over more money to make sure animals and the land are treated better.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.

Copyright © 2010. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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