Deal states respective organic standards are 'essentially equivalent'
By STEVE BROWN
The $50 billion annual trade in organic products between the U.S. and the European Union could quadruple with the signing of a new trade agreement, a USDA official predicts.
USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said an agreement was signed Feb. 15 affirming that the organic certification and enforcement standards of the U.S. and the EU are "essentially equivalent."
Formal letters creating the partnership were signed in Nuremberg, Germany, by Dacian Ciolos, European commissioner for agriculture and rural development; Ambassador Isi Siddiqui, U.S. trade representative chief agricultural negotiator; and Merrigan.
The signing took place at the BioFach World Organic Fair, the largest trade show for organic products in the world, with 2,200 exhibitors and "tens of thousands" of attendees, Merrigan said.
There was "a lot of excitement" at the trade show when the signing was announced, she said during a conference call.
The agreement will be especially helpful for smaller-scale operations that have found it difficult to get into the EU market because of high fees and paperwork.
It should also help job growth, she said. In a 2011 survey of organic farmers, half said they plan to hire more people in 2012.
The primary organic products going from the U.S. to the EU are cherries, apples, pears and tomato sauce. The main organic products imported from the EU to the U.S. are chocolate and olive oil.
The only exception in the agreement is that EU standards do not allow the use of antibiotics in crops or livestock, she said. Under U.S. organic standards, orchardists can use antibiotics to fight fire blight. EU standards, on the other hand, have zero tolerance for such residues.
Aside from that difference, "we're 99 percent there in terms of common ground," she said.
Merrigan said she expects the new agreement to be as successful as the partnership between the U.S. and Canada, which recognizes the equivalence of organic certification standards and enforcement.
In the past couple of years, organic officials from both sides of the Atlantic have had a "lot of visits to see how we do things in the field," she said. Both parties also conducted on-site audits to ensure that their programs' regulations, quality control measures, certification requirements and labeling practices were compatible.
The European Commission's Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development and the USDA National Organic Program -- which oversees all U.S. organic products -- will take on key oversight roles to ensure organic integrity "from farm to market."
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's National Organic Program: www.ams.usda.gov/nop