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New Mexico State University

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USDA Begins New Program To Plainly Label Organic Livestock Products

LAS CRUCES - As new organic food labels start popping up this week in your grocery store's meat, poultry and egg departments, a New Mexico State University livestock expert warns producers that the path to getting that all-natural tag will be rough.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's new organic seal, a green or black "USDA Organic" logo, will be found on products that contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients by weight. But getting that seal will be difficult for producers, says a New Mexico State University livestock expert. (10/25/2002)

"It's going to be a tough row to hoe," said Del Jimenez, agriculture specialist with NMSU's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project in Alcalde. "To sell organic beef within the state of New Mexico, everything has to be organic, including the feed these cattle eat. Even pastures have to be certified organic."

The new U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label standards, which went into effect Monday, are designed to end a patchwork of state and regional definitions for the term "organic" and help consumers get what they're paying for. The seal, a green or black "USDA Organic" logo, will be found on products that contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients by weight.

The organic approval process for livestock, which is carried out by the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission in Albuquerque, is already underway. "The number of organic livestock operations in New Mexico is continuing to grow," said Commission Director Joran Viers, who says these new ventures cover everything from typical cattle ranches to a yak farm.

"The one thing that would help us most is getting a USDA-certified organic meat processing facility here, so we could ship out-of-state," Viers said

Consumers can tell organically produced food from conventionally produced food by looking at package labels and watching for signs in the supermarket. Products with 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients can say so on the label, but they can't display the seal. Those who improperly sell or label a product "organic" can be fined up to $10,000.

"Today, when consumers see the USDA national organic seal on products, they will know that the products labeled organic will be consistent across the country," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in a statement.

To receive the new organic certification, growers and processors must follow a uniform list of do's and don'ts. Now, under the new USDA rules, "organic" means meat, poultry and eggs are from animals given no growth hormones or antibiotics.

Viers pointed out that vitamin and mineral supplements are allowed. But the livestock must be given organic feed and live in conditions that allow for exercise, freedom of movement and reduction of stress. "Feedlot dairies are automatically not going to qualify," he said.

The rules apply to growers with sales of $5,000 or more a year.

USDA-accredited certification agencies will monitor the process, from farms to retail stores, assuring that organic standards have been met throughout the supply chain. Still, the USDA has been careful to point out that it "makes no claim that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food."

According to the Natural Foods Merchandiser and the Organic Trade Association, retail sales of organic products have grown more than 20 percent a year for the past decade, reaching an estimated $11 billion in 2002, up from $9.3 billion in 2001. By 2005, sales are expected to reach $20 billion. Produce is the largest category of organic food, with $2.2 billion in sales in 2000.

While organics are growing, the USDA reported that they remain a small piece of U.S. farming making up less than 2 percent of the nation's fruit and vegetable production, less than 1 percent of the nation's cattle, pork and poultry and less than 1 percent of the nation's dairy production.

Those numbers remain tiny, in part, because of the challenges demanded of farmers who decide to take the organic route, NMSU's Jimenez said. There's a three-year transition before land is certified organic for growing crops. Ranchers and dairy owners face restrictions on what they feed their animals.

As a result, he said, many New Mexico producers will likely shy away from the extra paperwork demanded by the new regulations. However, he expects that many will follow the natural trend, calling their products antibiotic-free or hormone-free, rather than organic.