Statement by Roger Blobaum, Center for Science in the Public Interest
Presented at joint hearing of the Domestic Marketing, Consumer Relations, & Nutrition Subcommittee and the Department Operations, Research, & Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee House Committee on Agriculture
Washington, DC June 19, 1990
Mr. Chairman, I am Roger Blobaum, director of the Americans for Safe Food Project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI is a nonprofit organization that has 210,000 members nationwide and advocates improved health and nutrition policies. We actively support policies that encourage the production and marketing of certified organic food, locally-grown food, and food grown with minimal use of chemical inputs. We appreciate this opportunity to present our views on the Organic Certification Program.
We support this proposal and urge you to approve it. It provides benefits to consumers who want more organic food, and want to be certain that food sold as organic has actually been organically grown, and to the growing number of farmers who produce this value-added product. This legislation provides standards needed to develop a national marketing system for a fledgling organic food industry that is emerging as one of agriculture’s important new economic sectors.
This legislation responds to a clear new message from American consumers. We want to call your attention to the two most recent national surveys showing growing interest in organic food. A new Harris Poll prepared for Organic Gardening magazine and released in March showed 30 percent of those surveyed had made changes in their food buying habits in response to pesticide-related concerns and 28 percent said they had sought out and purchased organic produce or produce grown with reduced chemical inputs. The Fresh Tends 1990 consumer survey taken by The Packerr the trade publication of the produce industry, found that 26 percent of the consumers surveyed reported they had changed their food buying habits because of concern about chemical residues. And 11 percent said they had sought out and purchased organically grown food in 1989. Eleven percent may not sound like much, but when you convert this into households, it is close to 10 million. Numbers like this are getting the food industry’s attention.
Although high prices and limited access to organically grown food have been cited by supermarket chains and others as serious problems, there is evidence of long-term food industry interest. A recent survey of 552 produce retailers, wholesalers, and processors in New Jersey, for example, showed that half the respondents who have had no experience with organic food are interested in selling it in the future. More than 75 percent of those expressing this interest said an organic certification program is needed. It is interesting to note that 66 percent of these inexperienced sellers cited customer requests for organic food as their most important reason for being interested.
There is strong consumer interest in a national organic certification program. We discovered this last summer when we made petitions supporting national organic standards available to CSPI members and other interested persons. Petitions circulated by volunteers and returned by the end of the year contained more that 136,000 signatures. Although the deadline is long past, petitions filled with names are still coming in.
In response to many requests, CSPI also has published a directory of mail-order sources of organic food. Although our effort to promote the directory was limited to a press release and a brief announcement in our Nutrition Action health letter, consumer reaction has been surprisingly strong. More than 4 0,000 copies of this listing of about 120 mail-order companies have been sold and orders continue to come in daily. Our experience with this small publication demonstrates that consumers looking for organic food will go to a great deal of trouble to find it.
Food grown organically and certified is a value-added product that commands a premium price. The total volume of this product sold is difficult to document because so much of it is still marketed locally or sold directly to restaurants, health food stores, and other small volume buyers. A recent survey estimated that organic food sales in natural food stores had quadrupled over the last 10 years. The most comprehensive overall study available, completed recently by Marketdata Enterprises and reported in The Wall Street Journal, shows organic food sales jumped 40 percent in 1989 to a level of about $1.25 billion and are expected to increase another 34 percent this year. The federal government, unfortunately, has done little to track or document the growth of this new industry.
The federal government, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in particular, also have done little to encourage it. We are unimpressed by USDA’s complaints that the kind of program proposed here would be difficult or costly to implement. Nearly half the states now have an underlying statute that provides the legal framework for an organic certification program and, in cooperation with grower and certification organizations, have implemented programs that are cost effective and work well. The list of state programs now numbers 23 and several others have proposals on hold pending Congressional action on a national program.
There is little that is new or untried in what Congress is being asked to approve in this legislation. The main exception is the title dealing with an organic promotion board. The states do not have experience in the area, and we agree that it makes sense to establish an advisory committee that would work with the Secretary in developing a plan for an organic promotion board.
All the other activities provided in this proposal have been amply demonstrated since the early 1980s in programs established and implemented by state departments of agriculture. State employees who run these programs have a great deal of experience and expertise and many have used advisory committees effectively to assure consumer acceptance and a good working relationship with growers and others in the organic industry.
CSPI serves as a national clearinghouse for information on state organic/sustainable agriculture initiatives, has showcased state organic programs the last two years at our national conference, and has published a report entitled Organic Agriculture: What the States are Doing. We are unaware of any serious problems with state-run programs. We consider them an agricultural success story that USDA can, and should, emulate on behalf of the nation’s consumers and organic growers.
The main rationale for this legislation is that state organic standards are not uniform and that this is a barrier to movement of organic food across state lines and to the development of a national market. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture made that point last fall in a resolution calling for national legislation. NASDA’s request, adopted at its annual meeting, urged adoption of national legislation that would “facilitate interstate commerce in organic food by defining * organic’ and by setting national standards, labeling requirements, and other ground rules.”
This legislation provides minimum federal standards for organic food but allows states, at the same time, to adopt additional guidelines. A state with stricter guidelines, however, would not be allowed to discriminate against another state under this legislation. We feel this adequately addresses the interstate commerce problem and is a workable approach.
We endorse the provision allowing demonstrations of a “transition” label for production that meets all organically grown requirements except completion of the required 3-year withdrawal from use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Although the extent of consumer acceptance of a “transition” label is not known, we believe it would be useful to find out whether food bearing this label will command a higher price and provide a financial incentive to farmers making the transition to organic methods.
Finally, we would like to see the peer review panel section tightened up. Since the integrity of the label is so dependent on the professional ability and quality of certifying agents, we suggest that the Secretary be required to establish peer review panels to evaluate all applicants seeking accreditation.
We believe this proposal provides important benefits to consumers, to the emerging organic food industry, and to American agriculture. A national organic certification program will encourage environmental stewardship, provide market incentives to encourage the adoption of organic and sustainable farming methods, and facilitate interstate commerce in fresh and processed organically-grown food. It responds to well-documented food industry interest and consumer demand. We urge you to recommend passage of this important and timely legislation.
From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Roger Blobabum was the national director of Americans for Safe Food, a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a 230,000-member health and nutrition advocacy organization.) His work included organizing annual national organic/sustainable agricultural conferences in Washington, organic and sustainable agricultural initiatives in 12 states, and helping shape the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act and push it thorough Congress.