To see how this fascinating legal battle is unfolding, check out Ecolabel's continuously updated timeline of events. Here's a summary of the basics:
As of April 24, 2004, the USDA had issued directives which allowed:
1. The blind-use of prohibited pesticides on the organic farm.
2. Use of non-USDA organic labels to appear on fish.
3. Livestock to eat non-organic fishmeal that could be laden with synthetic preservatives, mercury and PCBs.
4. Will allow the use of any drug on the organic dairy farm at any time.
It should be noted that none of these omissions was included with negative intent; For instance, pesticide use was originally approved on a per-case basis, which proved too difficult to enforce, and a loophole generated in the subsequent revised enforcement protocols lead to this situation. Regardless of how these problems came to be, the organic label was, at this point, basically worthless.
Then, in May 2004, following a letter of concern from the Consumers Union, the USDA retracted the directives which left these holes in its policy. You can see the response received from the USDA by Consumers Union here.
Now, Consumers Union and Eco-labels have returned the "USDA Organic" label to the "good" pile. Consumers should still be careful about non-USDA organic labeling, fish, pet food, and personal care products, which have loosely defined criteria at this time.
Perhaps the most exciting take-away message from this story is that groups of motivated, educated people really can make a difference, even against a huge government behemoth like the USDA. Kind of makes you want to go out there and do something yourself doesn't it?
:: Drama at the USDA [by DM]