The Court of Appeals in Boston called on Monday for changes to the regulations that govern the National Organic Program (NOP), pointing out technical inconsistencies between the national organic standards implemented in 2002 and the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990.
The areas in which the court thought that changes should be made relate to multi-ingredient products and dairy herds.
For multi-ingredient products that are labelled as organic, the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 states that they must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients and no synthetic substances. However, regulations have allowed 38 synthetics, such as baking powder, to be used in these organic processed foods on a limited basis after strict review.
Moreover, the court said that it would require that food manufacturers wanting to use agricultural products not available commercially as organic in multi-ingredient products labelled as organic (up to five percent of such ingredients is permitted) will have to get the products individually reviewed.
Finally, the court pointed out that NOP regulations have allowed dairy herds transitioning to organic production to use 80 percent organic feed for the first nine months, while the OFPA requires all organic dairy animals to receive organic feed for 12 months prior to the sale of milk or milk products.
The USDA has the option to appeal the decision and has issued a notice demanding that comments regarding the NOP process be submitted by 4 April.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) said it will work with the USDA to address these issues.
"OTA is proud that in the two years since national organic standards were implemented, US organic acreage and production have grown substantially, organic product sales have increased, and there have been many environmental benefits as a result,"said Katherine DiMatteo, OTA's executive director.
"The court decision may hamper that growth rate in the short term, but OTA is optimistic that its members and others in the organic community can pull together to maintain the momentum for organic agriculture."
The organic food market in the US is estimated to be worth $10.4 billion and it shows no signs of tiring - it grew by 20.4 percent in 2003 - and sales are expected to reach $16.1 million in 2008, according to a recent report published by Euromonitor.
"Sales of organic food have outpaced those of traditional grocery products due to consumer perceptions that organic food is better for them," said the report. According to a 2002 study by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), 61 percent of consumers felt that organic foods were more beneficial for their health, 57 percent of them said that they had purchased organic foods in the past six months or had used them to help maintain their health. This figure was up from 50 percent in 2001.
The survey also found that fans of organic food believe it offers a "richer, deeper taste" than conventionally grown produce. Among Americans, the most frequently purchased organic food types are vegetables, fruit, cereals/grains, closely followed by yoghurt, UHT milk and dried pasta products.
National standards for certifying organic foods became effective in the US on 21 October 2002, establishing a national definition for the term "organic". Items that meet the new requirements are able to bear a green and brown "USDA organic" seal that certifies that the food was organically grown.