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Time for Congress to Correct Abuses in the National Organic Program | Commentary

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.”

However, a new report by an independent academic watchdog group which reviewed the marketing practices and use of the USDA Organic Seal reveals that the concerns raised about potential abuses by organic marketers are real, damaging conventional farmers and costing consumers tens of billions of dollars a year in added food costs. Academics Review, led by two emeritus professors in food and agricultural sciences, reported “Consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes.” Their research found “a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing” which “is enabled and conducted with the implied use and approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Seal in direct conflict with the USDA’s NOSP stated intent and purpose.”

While no longer serving in Congress, I am still a rancher and committed advocate for farmers and consumers. I agree with recent comments by former USDA Secretary John Block who asked why the multi-billion dollar organic food industry is getting a free pass from regulators when it comes to false and misleading food marketing which harms farmers and costs consumers billions?

If the Department of Agriculture cannot ensure the USDA Organic Seal is not abused, if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will not enforce truthful and non-misleading food labeling laws, and if the U.S. Federal Trade Commission will not address rampant deceptive marketing practices, then it’s time for Congress to put an end to US taxpayer dollars being used to mislead consumers into spending billions of dollars based on false claims that damage the 95 percent of America’s farming community producing the bulk of our safe and affordable food.

Richard Pombo is a rancher who lives and farms in Tracy, Calif. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2007.

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