By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The organic food industry is likely to get a checkoff in the next farm bill.
In a major victory for the organic food industry, the House Agriculture Committee approved a bill to allow the Agriculture Department to develop a process to establish an organic checkoff for promotion, over the objections of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla.
The Senate Agriculture Committee's farm bill also contains a checkoff provision. Under congressional rules, if both bills contain a measure, it is supposed to be in the conference report that both houses consider before sending it to conference.
The measure was sponsored by Rep. Kirk Schrader, D-Ore. The Senate version of the farm bill contains a similar measure.
The vote was 29 to 17. It occurred after spirited debate in which Lucas said he opposed the measure because it would be on a process, not a product.
Former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, also opposed it. Conaway said organic producers disparage conventional production. Schrader said trade groups can criticize other products, but checkoffs cannot. Goodlatte said that production standards vary on organic products and consumers cannot be sure of what they are getting.
But other Republicans joined the Democratic members of the committee to support it.
Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., said "I am always struck by people on our side of the aisle who have issues with organic. This is something we ought to be applauding, not condemning."
Ribble described himself as "a huge supporter of conventional" production, but said that organic producers are entrepreneurs who are producing differentiated food that consumers should have the choice to buy.
Lucas asked Ribble how organic producers could promote organic pork without disparaging nonorganic pork, but Ribble said "they talk about how they grow it."
Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said that a process is "more analogous to a brand," which is prohibited for checkoff promotions.
But Rep. Christopher Gibson, R-N.Y., who supported the measure, said it is "a thoughtfully worded amendment."
Schrader estimated that organic food producers would pay $22 million in checkoff fees. Schrader also said organic producers of products that already have checkoffs would have a choice of paying into the conventional checkoff fund or the organic fund. Certified organic producers are already exempt from participating in existing checkoffs.
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at email@example.com
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