WASHINGTON -- The Agriculture Department is dropping new organic food guidelines that allowed limited use of pesticides and antibiotics and drew criticism from some consumer groups and organic farmers.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the action yesterday after critics said the guidelines made the organic label seem less meaningful. The department's Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the guidelines, will work with industry representatives to clarify the standards, she said.
In a telephone briefing, Veneman said the guidelines had stirred ''a tremendous amount" of interest and concern.
''This is actually fantastic news," Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, an industry group, said yesterday. ''I have to say I'm very surprised. We didn't think the secretary would take action either this quickly or make a move to rescind all of them, but it's exactly what we wanted."
Organic supporters have said they were concerned that the new guidelines and enforcement directives created loopholes in the national organic standards.
The rules would have allowed producers to use pesticides that may contain inert chemical ingredients if a ''reasonable effort" cannot determine what the ingredients are.
They also would have let milk from cows treated with antibiotics to be sold under the department's organic seal, as long as the animal did not receive antibiotics for 12 months.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who was a key supporter of starting the organic labeling program, said it was welcome news that ''the secretary has decided to follow the law and to consult with the National Organic Standards Board." The board recommends policy to the department.
Agriculture Department spokeswoman Julie Quick said the department's National Organic Program, which oversees organic certification, will work with members of the standards board and other industry officials.
Asked whether the guidelines were dead, Quick said that would depend on the outcome of discussions between the department, the board, and the industry.