On February 15, 2012, the United States and the European Union entered into an Organic Equivalence Agreement under which the US and the EU agreed to treat each other’s system of organic certification as equivalent to its own, with these caveats:
Antibiotics can not be administered to animals for products entering the United States. [See this blog post for more on unnecessary antibiotics.]
Antibiotics can not be used to control fire blight in apples and pears for products entering the European Union.
The organic equivalence agreement becomes effective on June 1, 2012. One interesting aspect of this agreement is that it allows American organic food producers to compete with European producers on a bit more even playing field with respect to genetically modified foods.
See, for years the USDA’s “organic” label has served as a bit of a proxy for “free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)” in the U.S. The reason a proxy is needed is because the ability to directly label foods as “GMO free” is constrained by the FDA’s policy of requiring such labels to include a Seinfeldian disavowal: ” . . . Not that there’s anything wrong with GMOs . . . .” Without this disclaimer, the FDA saw the “GMO free” label as implying that the real food was superior to foods containing GMOs.
In the face of the FDA’s inaccurate and misleading labeling requirement, many producers of GMO-free food chose not to play the FDA’s game. Instead, these producers ensured that their products took the extra step of fitting another federal agency’s (the USDA’s) “organic” standards, which required the foods to be GMO free. That way, producers could simply use the “organic” label without the need to include a disclaimer about how the label is supposedly meaningless, as they would have to do with GMO-free foods.
Things are different in Europe. In fact, from 1998 to 2004, the European Union’s “Regulation on Novel Foods and Novel Food Ingredients” actually required the disclosure of the use of genetically modified organisms on all foods marketed within the European Union and effectively prohibited importing GM foods. The United States, along with several other countries, challenged the EU’s practice in 2003 before the World Trade Organization (*cue music from Amityville Horror or similarly chilling movie*). The WTO ruled against the EU. (As an aside, who put the WTO in charge, anyway? Sounds like a good subject for a future post.)
Thankfully, both the EU and the United States agree on one thing: GM foods are incompatible with a label of “organic.” Thus, on both sides of the Atlantic, “organic” is synonymous with “GM free” (and then some, of course – but GM free is part of it).
So, now, under the Organic Equivalence Agreement, both Europe and the United States enjoy the fruits (so to speak) of their mutual agreement regarding “organic,” even if they cannot agree on labeling of GMO or GMO-free foods. It’s a step in the right direction, although “GMO free” labeling (or affirmative labeling of foods containing GMOs) would be even better. If a food did not *quite* meet the USDA’s “organic” standards, that food may still be superior to other options because it’s GMO-free and consumers should be told this so that they may make informed decisions.
Because I’m a local foodie, the US/EU Organic Equivalence Agreement does not directly impact my purchases. I’m also not a fan of government-prescribed standards, believing that an organic standard established by an independent entity would be preferable to USDA-established standards [see my post "The FDA Giveth and the FDA (is Ordered to) Taketh Away" for my philosophy on this]. Thus, I see this agreement as more of a symbolic achievement than a true shift in relevant policy.
Maybe someday we’ll “Just Label It” (accurately label foods that contain GMOs). For now, I guess the label we can most rely on is “organic.”
- The Real Food Lawyer