25 Years After Federal Organic Foods Regulation, Industry Calls For More Regulation

WOSU, 11/23/15

By Mandie Trimble

Mike Laughlin (R) delivers organic butternut squash to a Short North restaurant.
Mike Laughlin (R) delivers organic butternut squash to a Short North restaurant.

Organic farmers are celebrating a milestone anniversary. It’s been 25 years since the federal government started regulating organic farming. The Organic Foods Production Act unified a patchwork of different state standards. We take a look at organic farming regulation and the areas where industry experts say there’s room to improve.

Mike Laughlin delivers several crates of large, organic butternut squash to the Short North restaurant Northstar.

Laughlin owns Northridge Organic Farms, in Johnstown. He’s been an organic farmer for about 35 years, long before the Organic Foods Production Act.

“Back then there was no law that governed labeling of the products, so you could just say it was organic,” he recalls.

Before the federal regulations, states certified farms. And the rules varied.

“Some of them were not as strict as others. So if you were growing organically in Ohio and selling it, you might be competing against somebody across a border that is producing with less stringent standards and maybe can produce that a little bit cheaper,” Laughlin says.

Laughlin says the Organic Foods Production Act leveled the playing field.

“And it protected the integrity of the word organic.”

But the law wasn’t perfect. It received a lot of public outcry and pushback from farmers for being overly broad and not stringent enough.

“That original set of rules would have allowed in organic production: genetic engineering, sewer sludge and ionizing radiation,” says Carol Goland, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association director.

OEFFA is one of the oldest organic certification agencies in the U.S.

“As a result of that backlash, those three things are explicitly prohibited in organic today,” Goland says. “Eventually, those rules were revised and they were released in 2000.”

By 2002, the federal National Organic Program was created to oversee all organic production and labeling.

On the northwest side of Columbus, Amy Shaw, shops at Raisin Rack, a natural food store. Shaw says she has eaten only organic foods for eight years. She thinks it’s healthier and better for the environment, but she wonders about the labels.

“You have to be wary. I’m big on whole foods. I mean, you don’t have to worry about the labels or the labeling if you’re eating an organic apple,” Shaw says. “If you know the farmer, and you shop locally, you can be pretty sure that you’re getting what they say you’re getting.”

Agencies like OEFFA certify organic farms for the USDA. There are about 50 of them in the U.S., and they hire contracted inspectors.

Goland admits agencies are stretched thin. OEFFA, for example, oversees nearly 900 farms and 70 processors across 10 states.

“But the reality is, that farmers and organic food processors have to go through the certification process every year,” Goland says. “As a whole, we are keeping up, but it represents an area of growth since organics is growing.”

Goland adds certifiers are calling for clarification and more regulation in areas like animal welfare, hydroponic crops and beauty products.

“You will see some cosmetics or body care products out on the market that are labeled organics. There aren’t really standards for these,” she says.

There are more than 730 certified organic operations in Ohio and nearly 20,000 in the U.S. Nationally, organic products generate $39 billion in sales.