OFPA anniversary passes without clarity

Pastured chickens.

The Organic Food Production Act celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday, November 28. Although this legislation allowed the establishment of national organic standards, it is a testament to the difficulty of this task that those standards were not implemented until 2002. Even today, there are small farmers who find the fees high and the paperwork cumbersome in dealing with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The rub is, farmers who choose an alternative certification cannot market their produce as “organic,” as the federal government has chosen a formal definition for that word.

Certified Naturally Grown is one of the best known alternatives. This certification is based on a peer-review model, more formally called a Participatory Guarantee System. According to CNGs website, “PGS provide an important alternative to third-party certification programs. In addition to being more affordable, and less reliant on paperwork, PGS are distinguished by their approach. Inspections are carried out by peer-reviewers, typically other farmers in the area. The PGS model is based on transparency, trust, and direct relationships. PGS foster local networks that strengthen the farming community through mutual support and educational opportunities.”

Recent developments have not done anything to clear the muddy water. Perhaps recognizing that their foray into the organic world came to mixed results, the federal government has long refused to act on the definition of the word “natural” as it might be applied to food labeling. Recent consumer petitions and court requests for that definition have led the FDA to ask for consumer input on the creation of this definition, however. “Because of the changing landscape of food ingredients and production, and in direct response to consumers who have requested that the FDA explore the use of the term “natural,” the agency is asking the public to provide information and comments on the use of this term in the labeling of human food products,” it said in its announcement. There is still no commitment by FDA to release any definition, despite this development.

The American National Standards Institute has recently weighed in, creating a standard for sustainable agriculture. Based on third party verification, the LEO-4000 Standards have four achievement levels: bronze, silver, gold, or platinum. In the end, the difficulty arises with the various terms competing for the consumer’s attention, in this case; organic, natural, and sustainable. Add to that another term: pasture-raised.

Indiana’s land-grant institution, Purdue University, through its agricultural extension service, has begun a marketing initiative to promote Indiana’s pasture-raised poultry. While that may sound innocuous, “The goal is to establish a set of common production, processing and branding standards to ensure consistent levels of quality,” said Roy Ballard, one of the project coordinators.

“That’s how you build customer loyalty,” Ballard said. “We would like to see Indiana’s pastured poultry become a product that is widely available, widely recognized and valued by consumers.” The term pastured poultry refers to chickens raised for meat in open fields, rather than in a confined space.

Perhaps the fact that this effort is called a marketing initiative helps us understand this confusing landscape. Despite the lack of clarity, there is consumer demand for products perceived as organic, natural, sustainable, and pastured. When farmers have a market for what they raise, they are able to continue doing what they do best: providing healthy food.

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