Meeting a self-imposed deadline, USDA issued the final rule on National Organic Standards on December 21, before the end of 2000. These new standards define organic labeling terms, agricultural practices and substances that can be used in production and handling of organic crops and livestock, and the processing of organic products. Calling the standard "the strictest, most comprehensive" in the world, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman described the rule as "a win for both farmers and consumers."

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) agreed. "For the first time, there will be consistent standards and labeling for all organic products marketed in the United States," stated Katherine DiMatteo, OTA executive director. "No longer will there be questions concerning what 'organic' stands for, or whether the process has been certified."

However, the food industry is wary that consumers will view organic as superior in quality and safety to conventionally produced foods. The Grocery Manufacturers of America requested a USDA survey of consumers to determine the degree of understanding of the "organic" label.

Secretary Glickman tried to assure the industry in his remark, "Let me be clear about one other 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. USDA is not in the business of choosing sides, of stating preferences for one kind of food, one set of ingredients or one means of production over any other."

As expected, the rule excludes from organic practice the methods of genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge for fertilization. However, the rule states, "The presence of a detectable residue of a product of excluded methods does not necessarily constitute a violation of this regulation. As long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods and takes reasonable steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods as detailed in their approved organic system plan, the unintentional presence of the products of excluded methods should not affect the status of an organic product or operation."

USDA refrained from establishing a tolerance for the presence of excluded methods, because without recognized methods of testing for and quantifying all traits in a wide range of food products, it would be very difficult to establish a reliable numerical tolerance.

The final rule makes several important changes in terms proposed in March.

  • Products containing at least 95% or more organic ingredients may be labeled as such, but the product's remaining ingredients must also be organic, if available in the marketplace.
  • The percentage of organic ingredients in products labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients" (allowing for excluded materials) was changed from at least 50% to at least 70%.
  • Producers may now designate the exact percentage of organic content on the primary display label.
  • For pesticide residues, the final rule established that a maximum level of residue for a pesticide on organic products may not exceed 5% of the EPA tolerance for that pesticide residue.
  • Animals must be fed 100% organic feed to be labeled organic.
  • When a non-synthetic and non-organic agricultural product is not commercially available in organic form, non-organically produced agricultural products may be used in accordance with any applicable restrictions.
The rule becomes effective February 19 and will be implemented 18 months after the effective date, under the oversight of President-elect Bush's nominee for agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman.

Veneman served as the former deputy secretary of USDA from 1991 to 1993, and more recently as secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Consumers will first see new organic labeling on products in stores by summer 2001. All agricultural products labeled "organic" must originate from USDA-accredited farms or handling operations that are certified by a state or private agency. The OTA estimates the value of retail sales of organic foods in 2000 was approximately $7.76 billion, growing on average 20% per year from 1990. The USDA estimates the number of organic farmers has increased about 12% per year and currently numbers 12,200 nationwide. Certified organic cropland more than doubled between 1992 and 1997.

For more information on the organic rule, refer to USDA's National Organic Program website (