WASHINGTON — Organic producers in the United States should have a much easier time cracking the potentially lucrative European market under a long-sought agreement being signed Wednesday.
For the first time, the European Union and the United States will accept each other's organic certifications. The agreement is supposed to streamline trade and speed growth of a farm sector already valued at tens of billions of dollars.
"It's been time consuming, but we all knew it would be worth it," Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said in an interview. "It's been the apple of our eye for a long time."
Growers agree it's a deal.
"Access to the European market has been complicated," Jake Lewin, chief certification officer with the California Certified Organic Farmers, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "The whole process of getting approved was a huge problem, and now it won't be."
Following some two years of negotiations, closely monitored by U.S. organic farming leaders, Merrigan and her European Union counterparts arranged to sign the new agreement at the BioFach World Organic Trade Fair in Germany. The BioFach fair in Nuremberg is the largest of its kind, and was chosen for its high profile.
The agreement that takes effect June 1, with some exceptions, declares that agricultural products conforming to U.S. organic standards meet the EU's standards, and vice versa. This means products labeled as organic within the United States can carry the same label, and potential price premium, within the 27-nation European Union.
The agreement follows a determination that the United States and European organic standards are, for the most part, substantially the same, and it allows exporters to avoid what amounted to a duplicate approval process.
"You'll see a big difference, especially for small and medium-sized exporters," Isi Siddiqui, the U.S. trade representative's chief agricultural negotiator, said in an interview.
Until now, Siddiqui said, many potential exporters have simply shied away from Europe.
Although California leads the United States in organic food production, Lewin noted that he has seen only a handful of California firms at this year's BioFach fair. The few firms present, including walnut producers from Dixon Ridge Farms in Yolo County and prune producers from Taylor Brothers Farms in Yuba County, represent what Lewin called a coming wave of other U.S. producers.
"The whole face of this fair is going to change," Lewin predicted.
Nationwide, organic food and beverage sales now exceed $26 billion annually. California leads the way with upward of 1 million acres of certified organic farmland and 2,300-plus certified organic producers.
The Agriculture Department counted 14,540 certified organic farms nationwide as of 2008, with Wisconsin, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania trailing behind California in total numbers.
The biggest organic certification difference between the United States and the European Union deals with antibiotics.
The Agriculture Department's organic regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics except to control bacterial infections in apple and pear orchards. The European Union organic regulations allow antibiotics to treat infected animals. The agreement blocks the meat from European animals treated with antibiotics from being marketed as organic in the United States.
The United States struck a similar cross-border organic certification agreement with Canada in 2009, and Merrigan said U.S. negotiators now hope they can repeat the success in coming years with South Korea.
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