New law angers organic farmers

The change weakens standards regulating what animals eat.

By Rob Hotakainen -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Monday, March 17, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Even though he says it's much more expensive, Gene Condiff buys organic food for the chickens and turkeys that he raises on his 80-acre farm near Browerville, Minn.

"I would think that if you're going to claim the animals are organic, you've got to feed them organic feed," said Condiff, 51.

Well, not necessarily.

Last month, Congress voted to gut the nation's organic food standards, saying organic livestock do not have to be given feed that is 100 percent organic.

Organic farmers are steamed, and they say that consumers should be, too.

"This is a good way to ruin the organic meat market, because now organic doesn't mean anything," said Douglas Gunnink, 50, who raises organic beef on his 170-acre farm near Gaylord, Minn.

President Bush signed the measure into law after it was attached to a $397 billion bill that increased spending on defense and education, among other things.

Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., added the language to the bill at the request of Fieldale Farms, a large poultry grower in his district.

"The all-vegetable diet is extremely burdensome for chicken producers," said Tom Hensley, Fieldale's vice president.

Gunnink, who has 40 head of steers, says that such talk would come only from a factory farmer.

"If you come from that mind-set, then organic isn't probably for you, and people shouldn't be fooled in the grocery store that it's organic food," he said. "That's not something to celebrate. That's something that the consumers that are interested in organic food should be scared as hell about."

Hensley said that Deal did "a great job" for the company by getting the language in the bill at the last minute.

"What's that old saying? The two things you don't want to see made are sausage and laws," he said. "You can make an argument that that's not right, but that happens all the time."

Under the new law, producers can give their animals conventional feed with antibiotics and pesticides and still label the meat organic.

Specifically, it permits the use of nonorganic feed when the cost of organic corn and soy exceeds twice the cost of regular feed.The new law came after Fieldale complained that it was having a hard time finding enough organic grain and that it was too expensive.

It's a "laughable" law, said Randy Duranceau, sales and marketing director for California-based Petaluma Poultry, which produces organic chicken.

"Organic feed is one of the critical ingredients in organic husbandry," he said. "You can't be half-organic. You either are or you aren't."

Organic farmer Condiff said he doesn't want his chickens raised in confined quarters. Rather than putting them in pens, he lets them run free outside, and he wants them to be free of chemicals.

"I don't like packing the animals full of hormones and medicines," said Condiff, who raises a couple of thousand chickens a year, on average. "I raise it and sell it, but I also eat it."

About the Writer

The Bee's Rob Hotakainen can be reached at (202) 383-0009 or