Sam Kazman is general counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Someone once commented that if the federal government regulated restaurant fare, there’d be blood in the streets. Vegetarians would be fighting with meat-eaters, Jews and Moslems would battle pork fanciers, tee-totalers would have at it with imbibers, and burrito purists would persecute wrap-sandwich snackers. Food peace is, in fact, one of the greatly unappreciated benefits of our relatively free restaurant market. Violent food fights are few and far between, and they tend to be limited to such government monopoly situations as prisons.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, recently came close to igniting the mother of all food fights with its organic-food labeling proceeding. The rulemaking drew over 115,000 comments—a record for the agency. At issue were such questions as whether the term organic could be applied to such items as genetically modified foods, irradiated meat, or crops fertilized with municipal sludge. Even the eligibility of livestock raised under confined conditions was questioned.

One might wonder why USDA was involved in this issue in the first place. A government attempt to define organic food nowadays is little different from a government attempt to regulate religious doctrine; it might bring uniformity, but it might also ignite the supermarket equivalent of a religious war. USDA, however, had not plucked this issue out of thin air. Rather, the task had been handed to it by Congress in the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. The agency might have told Congress, “forget it,” but agencies are loath to be that candid about nonsensical missions. On the contrary, a little extra turf and budget never hurt anyone in government service.

The Elusive Meaning of Organic

So what is organic anyway? The simplest definition is the one we learned in high school—compounds that contain carbon. That definition is also the most useless, since it encompasses just about everything we consume other than water and salt. (Is sea salt ever marketed as organic?)

The popular notion is that organic food contains no synthetic chemical additives. Defining just what this means in practice is hard enough. Are there any permissible measurable residues? How far down the production chain do the rules apply? If a field had synthetic pesticides applied to it in the past, how much time must pass before the produce grown on it can be called organic? What about the trace amounts of preservatives present in plastic packaging?

Moreover, even this basic public understanding—that organic means no synthetic additives—is subject to exceptions by organic purists. USDA’s main organic-advisory board, for example, issued a lengthy series of recommendations regarding permissible synthetic substances and impermissible nonsynthetic substances.

But what the controversy over USDA’s proposal demonstrates is not that organic food may be technically difficult to define, but that it isn’t a technical concept at all; instead, it has become a theological one. For many people, organic has come to mean a way of life—in the words of one group, a “holistic approach” involving “key concepts such as health of the agro-system and biodiversity.”

The fact that these concepts may be hard to define does not mean that the people who espouse them are insincere; it simply highlights the folly of federal involvement.

Private Certifiers

As demand for organic food has grown, private organic-certifying agencies have arisen. Some have stricter standards than others, and some may have standards and enforcement practices so lenient that they are practically meaningless. But to the extent that differences between them really mean something to consumers, those consumers are fully capable of distinguishing between them (or of choosing retailers who do the job for them). Regardless of whether we view the popularity of organic food as a crazy fad, a long-term market development, or an evolving esthetic, two things are clear: producers and consumers are entitled to pursue it, and government should keep out.

The lack of any pressing necessity for such involvement is clear. The large organic-foodstore chains already have established connections with suppliers and certifying agencies; the same is true of conventional supermarket chains that carry organic products. In the words of one marketing director, “consumers won’t see any drastic changes in our stores” under a federal rule. “We’ve been taking a very strong stance on organic from the beginning, requiring certification from growers.”

Organic growers themselves are also capable of doing without a cumbersome federal definition. According to one organic-farming newsletter, “many growers say that if certified organic becomes too difficult, or meaningless, they will just use another word to market their produce.”

The issue has been complicated by the entry of several state agencies into the certification business. The basic political urge of such agencies is to pre-empt the field and create regional monopolies over the term organic. To the extent this urge is resisted, consumers are better off.

Consumers who care about such issues don’t need the force of law in order to obtain the information they want about food products. USDA has already announced that its eventual definition will not allow genetically modified foods, but suppose it had ruled otherwise. Producers of organic foods that were not genetically modified could still communicate that fact to interested consumers—through labeling, through advertising, and even through private organic-certification systems that make a point of prohibiting bioengineered products. Information that groups of consumers want will make its way to them without legal compulsion.

In a sense, this is exactly what has happened for kosher certification. When it comes to kosher food, some people couldn’t care less, some people care only that a product be labeled kosher, and some are concerned about the strictness of the standard met by the product. For this last group there are competing rabbinical inspection boards, each with a different logo. With the possible exception of guarding against outright fraud, there is little need for government involvement. Interestingly enough, despite the lack of that involvement, consumer demand for kosher certification is so high that it has “gone mainstream.” Kosher-product sales have been growing steadily (in dollar volume they are only slightly behind organic food), and such mass marketers as Nabisco and Mars have recently joined the trend. Consumers seem capable of sorting things out peacefully.

Which brings me back to my opening point about restaurant regulation and public peace. I read it somewhere, but I don’t recall where. For the first reader to identify the source, I will buy a sandwich: veggie, organic, kosher, cheese and onions, you name it.