• 82°

Not chickenfeed

Among the thousands of egregious little earmarks slipped into the monster $397.4 billion federal spending bill this month was a special interest loophole for a Georgia chicken producer that threatens a fast-growing branch of the food industry.

In October, after a decade of debate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture required that foods - beef, poultry, fruits, vegetables - labeled and sold as "organic" be produced without pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers or growth hormones. Poultry and livestock, moreover, must be raised on certified 100 percent organic feed.

This was too much for Fieldale Farms, a Georgia chicken producer that wanted to sell as "organic" chickens raised on conventional feed, feed that could conceivably be grown using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. When Agriculture Secretary Ann

Veneman rejected the company's request for an exemption, it turned to its local congressman, Republican Nathan Deal, who without notice or debate slipped a rider into the 3,000-page bill.

Like much else in the bill, the special rider caused an outcry when it became public.

Deal's office complains that it is "being kicked around by the liberal press," but do let us remember that organic regulations were promulgated by the Bush administration and are enforced by a Republican Cabinet officer.

Fieldale complains organic feed is scarce and expensive, a problem one could reasonably expect to be solved by the laws of supply and demand. It does, however, give Fieldale a cost advantage over competitors who choose to abide by the spirit of the 100 percent organic rules.

Organic foods can be dismissed as the province of foodies and faddists, but, like any other American consumer, purchasers of organic food deserve the assurance they are getting what the label promises. Fudging on the definition of "100 percent organic" threatens the credibility of a promising new market. Organic foods overall are a $7 billion business, and organic meats are that market's fastest growing segment.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., this week introduced bills to

repeal this damaging break for a special interest. Congress should pass them quickly to restore 100 percent integrity to the organic foods label and restore a little bit of integrity to its own law-making process.

The Birmingham

Post-Herald

Feb. 26, 2003