National Organic Standards Board Meeting Report

December 10th, 2011

Economic Power/Corporate Lobbyists Manipulate the System

The National Organic Standards Board November meeting in Savannah, GA, held Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, revealed the deep divide that exists in the organic industry between public interest groups (like Cornucopia), farmers and consumers fighting for a strong and meaningful organic label and corporate executives and their paid lobbyists and scientists pursuing weaker standards in pursuit of profit.

During public testimony, audience members applauded Cornucopia Codirector Mark Kastel, who asked the Board members whether they were here to protect the organic market for organic consumers, organic farmers, and ethical organic entrepreneurs, or to pave the way for corporate profit. Kastel urged the Board members to preserve the integrity of the organic label by rejecting the various petitions for dubious synthetics in organic food, and by standing up for strong animal welfare standards.

Sulfites in wine – The Board rejected the petition to allow synthetic preservatives (sulfur dioxide) in organic wine – a clear victory for the organic community and especially for organic winemakers who have been producing award-winning organic wine for decades. Cornucopia worked with a strong contingent of winemakers who illustrated the lack of need for preservatives by hosting a wine reception for the board with products that were lauded for their quality.

Poultry and outdoor access – The Board voted on some of the recommendations for animal welfare standards, and announced it would continue its work on animal welfare at the NOSB meeting in May 2012.

The good news is that covered porches will no longer count as “outdoor access.” Industrial-scale producers like The Country Hen, Kreher’s and Herbruck’s that currently give their hens no access to the outdoors/soil/vegetation will no longer be allowed to call their eggs “organic.”

The Board adopted outdoor space requirements for organic chickens, and in an apparent attempt to appease industry interests, recommended a range of 2-5 ft2 for organic laying hens and as little as 1 ft.² for broilers. This is a disappointing compromise, since a range is likely no different from the minimum lowest number in the range. In this case, a range of 2-5 ft2 simply means a minimum of 2 ft2, which we do not believe is enough to protect the land, ensure adequate vegetation in the outdoor run, and conform to consumer expectation and the legal requirement that organic livestock be allowed to exhibit their natural instinctive behaviors.

The minimum indoor space requirement in the NOSB’s final recommendation is 2 ft2 for laying hens. It is unclear why the Board adopted such a high number, when the previous draft of the recommendation called for 1.2 ft2 per laying hen if all hens have perches, or 1.5 ft2 if 20% of the birds have perches, and Cornucopia had urged 1.75 ft2. If any of our members who produce organic eggs have serious concerns about 2 ft2 indoors, which had never been discussed by the NOSB, please contact us.

The NOSB also recommended that pullets do not have to go outside until after 16 weeks (since this is generally the age young birds are moved to the laying house, this effectively means that they will never be outside when immature and will likely be unused to/scared of the outside as a mature adult). After moving to the laying house, they can then be confined for up to five weeks to get used to “nesting,” meaning that most birds will probably not have outdoor access until 21 weeks of age (and many only remain in production for one year). In a positive move, the Board recommended that mature swine must be on pasture during the grazing season, with a pasture that consists of at least 25% vegetative cover.

DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil – The Board voted to accept Martek Biosciences Corporation’s genetically mutated DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil, with the exception that it could not be extracted with the use of the toxic and air pollutant petrochemical hexane. Since all DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil in organic infant formula is currently extracted using the hexane solvent, and has never been approved by the NOSB, we are urging the National Organic Program to take immediate enforcement action.

However, the compromise of prohibiting the hexane-extracted oils, negotiated by lawyers and lobbyists for Martek Biosciences Corporation, and the dairy behemoth Dean Foods (Horizon), appears to have been a dirty deal. Although the compromise proposal outlaws hexane, it does not outlaw the general category of “synthetic solvents” for extraction, and Martek uses the synthetic solvent isopropyl alcohol to extract the algal oil for use in Dean Foods’ Horizon milk. Moreover, prohibiting only hexane, instead of all synthetic solvents, could potentially lead Martek to use even more dangerous solvents, like acetone or benzene, to manufacture their nutritional oils for use in organic infant formula.

DHA algal oils and powders that are not hexane-extracted were approved for use in organic drinks and foods, with the requirement that any other agricultural ingredients used must also be organic (the DHA algal oil in Horizon’s milk, for example, currently contains conventional sunflower oil).

While these changes are important – consumers clearly do not want hexane-extracted oils and conventional ingredients in their organic foods – they do not go far enough! Prior to the meeting, the USDA National Organic Program had concurred with Cornucopia in urging the Board members to closely examine “other ingredients” used in petitioned substances. In an organic baby food currently on store shelves (Happy Babytm cereal), DHA algal oil contains unapproved and unreviewed synthetics including mannitol (a sugar alcohol), sodium polyphosphate, sodium ascorbate, modified starch and glucose syrup solids. Most consumers who seek out organic food are trying to avoid these types of synthetics.

All but four Board members voted for the Martek compromise approving DHA algal oil, knowing full well that their “yes” vote would approve these synthetics as part of DHA algal oil in certified organic food, including organic baby cereal – often the very first solid food a baby consumes. The vote came after a last minute backroom deal to add the annotation to the Martek petition, which was crafted between Board members and lobbyists to meet some of the concerns raised at the meeting and to secure the votes of two swing members needed for approval (a supermajority of 10 was required for adoption).

The growing gulf between those who fight for a strong organic label and those whose pursuit of profit trumps any concern for the integrity of organics was amplified by the legions of paid lobbyists, scientists and lawyers who paraded before the NOSB seeking approval for Martek and Dean/Horizon’s DHA algal oil. The wave of power and money swamped the board with questionable science, interpretations and half-truths.

Cornucopia and its allies will continue to fight for strong organic standards, on behalf of our family farmer and consumer members like you.

We would especially like to thank the 15,000 citizens that signed and returned their proxy letters, and forwarded other communications. During public testimony, we had to borrow a wheeled industrial cart from the hotel engineering staff to deliver the many large boxes full of signed letters. The volume of letters cautioned the NOSB members and USDA staff that they should not act recklessly, because thousands of organic farmers and consumers care deeply about these issues, and are carefully following the process.

Thank you for your continued support. We are continuing to work with the heroes on the NOSB and USDA staff, to correct some of the apparently illegal decisions that were made. If we are unsuccessful in persuading them to act, Cornucopia might very well end up challenging some of these decisions, that violate the congressional mandate to protect the organic label, in court.

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