Over the course of 10 days in mid-April, the USDA issued three "guidances" and one directive -- all legally binding interpretations of law -- that threaten to seriously dilute the meaning of the word "organic" and discredit the department's National Organic Program. And the changes -- which would allow the use of antibiotics on organic dairy cows, synthetic pesticides on organic farms, and more -- were made with zero input from the public or the National Organic Standards Board, the advisory group that worked for more than a decade to help craft the first federal organic standards, put in place in October 2002.
The USDA insists that the changes are innocuous: "The directives have not changed anything. They are just clarifications of what is in the regulations that were written by the National Organic Standards Board," USDA spokesperson Joan Shaffer told Muckraker. "They just explain what's enforceable. There is no difference [between the clarifications and the original regulations] -- it's just another way of explaining it."
But Jim Riddle, vice chair of the NOSB and endowed chair in agricultural systems at the University of Minnesota, argues that what the USDA is trying to pass off as a clarification of regulations is actually a substantial change: "These are the sorts of changes for which the department is supposed to do a formal new rulemaking process, with posting in the Federal Register, feedback from our advisory board and a public-comment period. And yet there is no such process denoted anywhere."
Organic activists suspect that industry pressure drove the policy shifts. They point out that the USDA leadership has longstanding industry sympathies: Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman served on the board of directors of a biotech company, and both her chief of staff and her director of communications were plucked right out of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
"Even though it evolved as a reaction against large-scale American agribusinesses, the organic food industry has seen tremendous growth, roughly 20 to 24 percent a year for the past 10 years," said Ronnie Cummins, founder and national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "That, not surprisingly, has brought with it investments from big business and demands for conventional farming practices more favorable to mass production."
One practice favored by large agribusiness is the use of antibiotics on cows, and a guidance [PDF] issued on April 14 will allow just that on organic dairy farms, a dramatic reversal of 2002 rules. Under the new guidelines, sickly dairy cows can be treated not just with antibiotics but with numerous other drugs and still have their milk qualify as organic, so long as 12 months pass between the time the treatments are administered and the time the milk is sold.
"This new directive makes a mockery of organic standards," said Richard Wood, a recent member of the FDA's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee and executive director of Food Animal Concerns Trust. "Organic farmers that we have talked to are furious because they have been very careful to follow the antibiotics rule. [The rule change] undercuts their ability to make a living doing things right."
Furthermore, said Wood, the use of antibiotics will reduce the pressure on organic farmers to provide healthy accommodations for their livestock. If they know they can pump their animals up with drugs, they won't have to worry so much about disease spreading when cows are penned up in close quarters, or about weaning calves from their mothers at an unnaturally early age.
"It's hard to deny that this looks awfully like a political move by USDA to do the bidding of larger dairy operations that want to produce organic milk by expanding their herds with cattle that were once on non-organic farms," Wood said.
Another new guidance [PDF] put out on the same day would allow cattle farmers to feed their heifers non-organic fishmeal that could be riddled with synthetic preservatives, mercury and PCBs, and still sell their beef as organic.
And the following week, on April 23, the USDA took the particularly egregious step of issuing a legal directive [PDF] that opens the door for use of some synthetic pesticides on organic farms.
Previously, organic farmers were only allowed to use natural, nontoxic pesticides on their crops, which effectively prohibited use of pesticides with hidden ingredients (pesticide manufacturers often don't list certain ingredients, claiming the information is proprietary).
According to the new guidelines, however, organic farmers and certifiers are only required to make a "reasonable effort" to find out what is in the pesticides being applied to crops. "If they can't come up with the info on toxic inert ingredients that may be in their pesticides, they're off the hook" said Liana Hoodes, organic policy coordinator for the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. "This takes all the pressure off of pesticide manufacturers to reveal their ingredients and develop nontoxic products. In fact, it creates a disincentive."
Last but certainly not least, another guidance [PDF] released on April 14 narrows the scope of the federal organic certification program to crops and livestock, critics say, meaning that national organic standards will not be developed for fish, nutritional supplements, pet food, fertilizers, cosmetics and personal-care products.
"Consumers beware: This basically allows any opportunistic company to put fraudulent 'organic' labels on products outside of the regulated domain, without any liability concerns," Hoodes told Muckraker.
There have never been federal organic standards for these product categories -- which is why you cannot now trust an "organic" label on a bottle of shampoo or a package of farm-raised salmon -- but the USDA had previously said it would develop such standards. In anticipation of that eventuality, many companies have invested millions of dollars over the past decade to develop fish farms and factories for non-agricultural products that adhere to criteria consistent with those for organic crops and livestock.
"All that effort has just flown out the window," Cummins told Muckraker. "It's an outrage for the 30 million consumers who pay a premium for organic products and expect that they can trust the organic claim."
The USDA rejects activists' interpretation of this particular guidance: "There's a process to go through [to develop organic guidelines for non-agricultural categories] and it hasn't happened [yet]," said Shaffer. "It could still happen. I'm not clairvoyant."
Despite the USDA's demurrals, activists view the department's changes as a serious threat to hard-won standards for organic products. The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture and other groups are investigating possible industry influence into the USDA's process, and some environmental groups are preparing to take legal action.
"Secretary Veneman should withdraw these new directives and follow the appropriate rulemaking procedures," said Riddle of the NOSB. "We want them withdrawn and to do it right."
What do the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation, United Egg Producers and Tyson Foods have in common?
Well, first there's the obvious fowl connection. Then there's the foul connection: Their facilities, known as "concentrated animal feeding operations" (CAFOs), have growing air-pollution problems thanks to the mountains of gas-emitting excrement deposited daily by their tens of thousands of cooped-up feathery charges.
These industry groups also share another connection: membership in the Ag Air Group, a coalition of special interests that includes the National Pork Producers Council and the National Milk Producers Federation (whose hogs and heifers also contribute to malodorous air-quality problems). The group has been helping the Bush EPA create an air-monitoring program that would allegedly pave the way for regulation of this escalating and, at present, virtually unregulated problem -- but the program has a stench all its own.
Over the past decade, the livestock industry has steadily expanded and CAFOs have grown increasingly concentrated, displacing smaller, family-owned farms. As more animals are packed into massive factory farms, the facilities produce ever larger heaps of excreta, which emit noxious air pollutants, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, both of which are on par with cyanide and arsenic as hazardous substances, as well as volatile organic compounds and particulate matter from fecal dust.
In the past 10 years, nearly a dozen people have died in CAFOs in the U.S. from exposure to these gases, and according to a study released in February 2002 by Iowa State University and the University of Iowa Study Group, up to 70 percent of workers exposed to pollutants at CAFOs in the U.S. are afflicted with acute bronchitis and 25 percent with chronic bronchitis.
The EPA, though it has taken a number of legal actions against factory farms over surface and groundwater pollution, has been notably slow to act on air-quality problems at CAFOs, despite escalating calls from the environmental community to address the issue.
Michele Merkel, a former staff attorney in the EPA's enforcement division, filed the agency's first suit against a CAFO for Clean Air Act violations in October 1999, under the Clinton administration. The suit charged Premium Standard Farms -- a pork company that owns more than 2.5 million pigs and produces more sewage than the city of St. Louis -- with violating clean-air standards, and was settled out of court. A second such suit filed by the EPA was also settled out of court.
But the Bush administration put the kibosh on these enforcement efforts, according to Merkel. "Once the Bush team came in, I was not allowed to pursue any further air lawsuits against CAFOs," she told Muckraker. "We got political cover to continue what was underway, but I was told that new efforts were off-limits. It wasn't just coming from my EPA superiors, it was coming from the White House." Merkel found it so demoralizing to see the enforcement process hamstrung that she quit.
"But now the problem is only getting worse," she said. "The negligence is leading to a growing incidence of respiratory problems, not to mention olfactory discontent, among the residents in neighboring towns."
Merkel now works at the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, which recently joined the Sierra Club in an effort to obtain under the Freedom of Information Act hundreds of pages of e-mails and meeting records that reveal the backroom negotiations between industry and the EPA as they worked to devise a CAFO-friendly air-regulation program.
The documents, first exposed May 16 in a Chicago Tribune article by Andrew Martin, reveal that the latest draft of the program [PDF], which the EPA intends to release this summer, is remarkably similar to the program proposal [PDF] submitted to EPA in June 2002 by a lawyer and a lobbyist for the Ag Air Group. There's also evidence that EPA officials used a PowerPoint presentation drafted by an industry lobbyist as they explained the proposed air-monitoring program at a National Pork Producers Council meeting last year.
What's the program all about? As enviros see it, the factory-farm industry realized it was a sitting duck, out of compliance with Clean Air Act rules and a prime target for lawsuits, so it approached the EPA with a deal that would stem the threat of litigation. Industry people freely admit concerns about lawsuits: "We don't want to face haphazard, expensive lawsuits," said Richard Schwartz, a lawyer for the Ag Air Group. "It's like being struck by lightning -- that's how random it is."
The program would insulate CAFOs from clean-air enforcement efforts if they volunteer to participate in a two-year monitoring program to measure their air emissions. In 2007, they would be asked to come into compliance with the Clean Air Act during a 120-day "cure period" -- essentially having bought a couple of years of extra time to clean up their acts.
Industry and EPA officials characterize the program as a way to gather emissions data that can be used down the road to create a solid regulatory program; they point out that current methods for measuring CAFOs' emissions are rudimentary and not standardized, so study in this area is needed. "We need standards that will level the playing field and do away with these uncertainties," said Schwartz.
Enviros agree on the need to formulate better standards, but they argue that the EPA doesn't need to cozy up to industry in the process. "The EPA has fully within its authority the power to order the production of air-quality data at each facility that's conducted with a single, standard, government-controlled test, without entering into a deal with industry," said Sierra Club attorney Barclay Rogers, who led the FOIA request.
To take part in the program, a company would be asked to pay a "penalty" (or as critics call it, an "admissions fee") of between $200 and $1,000 per factory farm, depending on the size and number of farms it owns, plus a flat per-factory fee of $2,500 to fund monitoring efforts.
"That's a pittance compared to the statutory penalties available under the Clean Air Act, which are $27,500 per day of violation," said Rogers.
Schwartz made no bones about the program's potential advantages to industry in -- where else? -- Pork magazine. "[Y]ou can view it as a very cheap insurance policy," he's quoted as saying in a May 7 article.
However, he told Muckraker that the program was a reflection of industry's charitable inclinations -- not the EPA's. "To my knowledge, this is the first time industry has gone out of its way to pay for a study to determine its own emissions," he said. "It is extraordinary, that's for sure!"
The EPA did not respond to Muckraker's request for comment.
Rogers is hopeful that the EPA will decide against formally implementing the program, but if the agency goes forward with it, "of course we'll contemplate the appropriate legal actions," he said.