WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack begins his confirmation hearings in Congress, a controversy is brewing in the organic food and farming industry concerning his appointment.

For the last eight years, Bush administration officials at the USDA have been widely criticized for "monkeywrenching" the National Organic Program. They have been accused of not enforcing the law and allowing giant factory farms to produce organic milk, meat and eggs.

Understandably, the industry viewed Barack Obama's election as a likely turning point. "We were and still are optimistic that when Mr. Obama talked about 'change' during his campaign, that he included a shift away from corporate agribusiness domination at the USDA," said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.

Over 130,000 petition signatures were collected by two advocacy groups, urging the Obama transition team to appoint a USDA secretary embodying that change. When Obama tapped former Governor Tom Vilsack, an Iowa lawyer with strong past backing for genetic engineering and a close relationship with corporate agribusiness interests, some organic proponents expressed their opposition.

The Organic Consumers Association is now in the midst of another pressure campaign gathering 40,000 signatures for rejecting the Vilsack nomination.

In response, a group of the organic industry's corporate CEOs launched their own counter petition drive in support of Vilsack. Officers of some of the largest corporate entities like Whole Foods, Stonyfield and United Natural Foods Inc., have signed on in support. Their petition, with about 500 signatories, includes many Iowa residents familiar with Mr. Vilsack when he was governor.

"We hate to see what appears to be the grassroots lining up in opposition of this nominee and corporate investors breaking with their most dedicated customers. This split is not healthy for the organic community," Kastel noted. The Cornucopia Institute is not endorsing either petition drive.

In a candid communique to the Obama transition team, The Cornucopia Institute described the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) as "dysfunctional" and asked for the Obama administration to make its rehabilitation a priority.

Their letter described the NOP's long-standing adversarial relationship with the majority of organic farmers and consumers and the groups that represent them. It said: "Senior management, with oversight of the NOP, has treated industry stakeholders arrogantly and disrespectfully and has overridden NOP career staff when their findings might have been unfavorable to corporations with interests in the organic industry."

SOURCE: The Cornucopia Institute via PR Newswire.