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Kathleen Merrigan, organic food expert, tapped for No. 2 agriculture slot

Pres. Obama has tapped Kathleen Merrigan, an academic and former congressional aide who helped write federal organic food-labeling rules, to be deputy agriculture secretary. The White House announced the pick yesterday, drawing cheers from food-safety advocates, who have pushed for more stringent labeling regs.

"Merrigan will bring an excellent perspective to a number of troublesome labeling issues now before the agency," Jean Halloran, Consumers Union's director of food policy initiatives, said in a statement. Among the matters that need to be addressed, she said: loopholes in the current "grass fed" standard, lack of uniformity in meat marketing claims, defining "raised without antibiotics" label claims, and weaknesses in the current definition of "naturally raised."

Merrigan, 49, director of the agriculture, food and environment program at Tufts University, helped develop the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 as a staffer on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The law created national standards for organic foods and a federal program to accredit them. From 1999 to 2001, Merrigan served as administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which oversees the agency's organic program.

Consumer's Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this month complaining that the "naturally raised" standard finalized during the Bush administration was "very limited," because it allowed meat from animals treated with antimicrobial, growth-promoting drugs known as ionophores to carry the label. It asked the agency to define the term "raised without antibiotics," which has previously been interpreted to allow the use of ionophores.

"While most consumers believe that this claim means no antibiotics or antimicrobial drugs were administered, there is in fact no standard for the term," the letter says. Consumers Union also called for Vilsack to close what it says is a loophole in "grass fed" standards AMS set in 2007 that allows producers to apply to another arm of USDA, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), for permission to use the grass-fed label without meeting the AMS guidelines. Those standards require meats labeled "grass fed" to come from animals fed 99 percent grass, and for them to be given access to pasture during the growing season versus being fed dry grass or hay indoors.

A spokesperson for FSIS said Wednesday that producers or companies making claims that their products are 100 percent grass fed should meet the AMS standard. "However, as a matter of policy, FSIS does not restrict companies to only being 100 percent grass fed," he said. They can list other grass-fed values on their label, he said, if the agency has signed off on documents backing their claims.

Updated Feb. 25 at 5:35 p.m. with FSIS comment

Image of Kathleen Merrigan/Melody Ko, courtesy of Tufts University

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