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Letter to Richard Matthews of the USDA regarding organic food

June 15, 2004
Richard Matthews
Program Manager
Room 4008-South Building
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250-0020
Telephone: 202.720.3252
Fax: 202.205.7808
Dear Mr. Matthews,
As you know, Consumers Union registered our concerns with Secretary Ann Veneman (May 5, 2004) concerning several directive statements issued by your office regarding the National Organic Program. Not only were these directives issued without input from the public or the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)– but the actual substance of those directives devalued the worth of the organic label and undermined the integrity of the National Organic Program. We were pleased to hear Secretary Veneman’s announcement rescinding these directives and looked forward to increased transparency and cooperation with the public in managing the National Organic Program.
However, based on several news stories, USDA has asserted that the substance of these directives is legitimate and that the concern registered by the public stemmed from a communication error. Consumers Union strongly disagrees. USDA has made it clear that it will work with industry and the NOSB before taking similar actions in the future. But CU believes that that the agency needs to do a better job of considering the most significant stakeholder, the public who pays for the existence and benefits of the National Organic Program. The public outcry last month should be an indication of consumer concern, not only with the process, but with the ultimate outcome of those directives. USDA has an obligation to listen.
It has recently come to our attention that a meeting was convened by USDA with some organic stakeholders that included industry groups and the NOSB. We have serious concerns that during that meeting, the substance of the now rescinded directives were reaffirmed as USDA’s interpretation of the law and regulation. We believe, as does the public, that by rescinding these directives publicly at a May 26, 2004 press conference, Secretary Veneman was stating that the Department considered them to be withdrawn from use. Therefore, we want to clarify your current position by asking the following very specific questions and request a written answer from USDA no later than June 22, 2004.
1. Are your “interpretations of the law” outlined in the rescinded directives still your interpretations? If so, do you consider them to have legal standing at this time?
2. Are the following scenarios considered to be compliant with the National Organic Program and the law according to USDA? What would your response or interpretation of the law be if a non-compliance notice or consumer complaint was filed on the following organically-labeled products today?

A. A fish sold with a non-USDA organic claim?
B. Produce sold from a farmer who does not know whether EPA List 2 or 3 inert ingredients are being used on the farm?
C. Livestock fed non-organic fishmeal as a protein supplement?
D. Milk from an organic farm that allows dairy cows to be treated for illness with any drug, at any time (including recombinant bovine growth hormone), on the organic farm?

3. Are these directives being enforced at this time? If not, will they be proposed in the Federal Register for public comment? If they will be used, where and when will they be posted on the USDA National Organic Program’s website?
The public not only expects but deserves complete transparency and honesty in the management of the National Organic Program. We appreciate your time and answers to our questions, as do the millions of Americans who pay a premium for organic products thinking they are making a meaningful purchasing decision.
Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D.
Director, Eco-labels.org Project
cc: Senator Leahy