With concerns mounting over artificial pesticides and genetically modified foods, there is an increasing demand for organic food products in the United States. Of course, without a consensus on what makes a product "organic," such a distinction is meaningless, leaving the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the difficult job of defining a standard by which all food producers nationwide are judged.
The USDA's National Organic Program, (NOP) mandated by the 1990 farm bill, implements national standards defining organic products, acceptable production methods, labeling, and other controversial issues in the food industry. The stakes are high; as of 1999, the organic food industry was worth $4 billion in the United States, and growing at a rate of 22% annually. Because many U.S. organic products are exported to Europe and Asia, the national organic standard is of great international importance as well.
Traditionally, proposed federal regulations, including the rules for organic agriculture standards, have been published in the Federal Register with written comments, and made available in the Washington office of the relevant agency. Unsurprisingly, few members of the public avail themselves of this opportunity to review and comment on proposed rules.
Established by the NOP in 1996, the Internet Rulemaking for Organic Food Standards program is the first large-scale use of electronic media to open up the federal rulemaking process to public stakeholders. The proposed rule and background information are posted to the website, as are transcripts of public meetings and comments from interested citizens. For this first time, the entire open record of a Federal regulatory proceeding is available on the Internet, not as a historical archive, but as an ongoing dialogue with the public.
On its first release, the rulemaking website received over 275,000 public comments in 135 days, and more than 2,700 hits per day, a testament to the level of interest in the topic, and to the efficiency of the online forum. By making all information about a proposed rule universally available as quickly as possible, public confidence in the government has been improved, especially among the initially skeptical organic industry.
Far fewer citizens have accessed the hard-copy record at NOP headquarters, or made Freedom of Information Act requests for public information, leading to less wasted time and money on redundant information sources. The agency has saved over $1 million in copying, space, and staffing costs by providing its materials online. Even the design of the site itself has been tailored to input from users. Improved versions of the site have allowed search capabilities by subject and word in the full text, not just topical and index searches as allowed by the 1996 technology.