WASHINGTON - New federal rules that define what makes milk and meat organic have natural food advocates optimistic that the government is committed to ensuring the label means something.
U.S. consumers bought $24 billion worth of organic products in 2008. But for many, the purchases came with uncertainty about what they were getting for their money.
''During the Clinton and the Bush administrations there wasn't a lot of teeth in the enforcement aspect of it,'' said Tom Willey, 61, an organic fruit and vegetable farmer in Madera, Calif. ''Things have kind of been in a morass as far as enforcement for a number of years, but now we're very hopeful that will change.''
The optimism is based on U.S. Department of Agriculture rules announced Feb. 12 that require livestock to be grazed on pasture for at least four months a year to qualify for an organic meat or dairy label. The animals also must get at least 30 percent of their feed from grazing. Previous rules required only that animals have ''access to pasture.''
Organic advocates also point to a USDA decision last August to audit the National Organic Program because of self-admitted problems with reliability and transparency. The program is made up of 100 organic certifying organizations.
Any mass-marketed product that bills itself as ''100 percent organic'' or ''organic'' is subject to USDA organic certification and bears the agency's seal.
Although products that carry the seal are produced on farms and by manufacturers that already are subject to inspections by USDA's organic certifiers, critics have argued the agency's definitions are not tailored narrowly enough and that some products are organic in name only.