OTA: USDA decision to stop organic checkoff rule ‘makes no sense’ | TheFencePost.com

OTA: USDA decision to stop organic checkoff rule ‘makes no sense’

The Hagstrom Report

Laura Batcha

Reacting to the Agriculture Department's announcement May 11 that it will terminate the rulemaking to establish an organic checkoff, the Organic Trade Association noted that the organic sector has grown to $50 billion and said "It makes no sense that the agency is continuing to take steps to cut it off at the knees."

The USDA's Agricultural Market Service published a rule to terminate a proceeding that proposed to establish a national research and promotion program for certified organic products under authority of the Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996 (1996 Act).

The Federal Register notice acknowledged that the Organic Trade Association had proposed the checkoff, but said, "based on uncertain industry support for and outstanding substantive issues with the proposed program, USDA is terminating the proceeding."

The checkoff has been controversial in the organic community, with smaller farmers saying it would benefit big farmers, processors and retailers.

The Federal Register notice says that USDA received almost 15,000 comments.

The reasoning for terminating the rule said, "The comments revealed that there is a split within the industry in terms of support for the proposed program."

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"While some comments voiced support for a collective industry program, other comments stated that industry was not aligned in backing the proposal.

"Opponents raised concerns about the proposed program, including how the de minimis level would eliminate a majority of organic farmers from the program; the disproportionate impact on high value commodities as assessments would be tied to sales value; whether organic promotion is possible without being disparaging to other agricultural commodities; voting methodology; financial burden on small entities to comply; and cited the challenges to tracing imported organic products."

In a statement, Laura Batcha, the OTA CEO and executive director, said, "If there was ever a need for an organic checkoff, it is now."

"We are seeing organic dairy and egg sales flattening because of USDA's failure to move the animal welfare rule forward. Organic research funding is uncertain because it is tied to the unpredictable fate of the farm bill. The government also has interfered with the strong role of the National Organic Standards Board. These actions hurt U.S. organic farmers and businesses."

In a reference to USDA's recent announcement that it will implement the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients by calling them bioengineered and allowing a symbol to be used instead of on-package word labeling, Batcha added, "This announcement comes within days of a smiley face GMO disclosure logo, which is bound to cause confusion for consumers and reveals that USDA is not being even-handed. There is no question we need promotion for organic as consumers continue to demand food transparency."

"USDA's assertion that there is 'uncertain industry support for and outstanding substantive issues with the proposed program' is simply wrong," Batcha continued.

"The Organic Trade Association is certain about the quality of the proposal and the outcome of the initial public comment period. We submitted comments with 1,358 public endorsers named, including over 1,230 certified organic operators. These organic farmers, ranchers and business stakeholders were joined by over 11,000 supporters who commented directly on the proposal.

"The Organic Check-off proposal was crafted over five years, incorporating the input from organic stakeholders throughout the country. The proposal also included constructive ideas brought forward during the opportunity to submit partial proposals. It did not include ideas not allowed under USDA's regulations governing check-offs, or ideas that reflected a misunderstanding of this unique proposal. The proposal was comprehensive, thoroughly vetted, and strong." ❖