Fed Shutdown Forces Cease-Fire in Organic War: USDA Louisville Meeting Canceled

October 10th, 2013

Organic Advocates Railing Against
Industry/Obama Administration Power Grab

Button_WeOwnIt2As collateral damage spreads, with Congress continuing at loggerheads over a Continuing Resolution to fund the federal government, the newest victims include farmers and consumers who depend on the USDA to oversee the propriety and integrity of the organic industry.

In a unique regulatory structure, Congress created the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to advise the USDA Secretary on policies impacting the organic industry and to specifically oversee and carefully review for approval any synthetic and non-organic material and ingredient used in organic farming and food production.  Additionally, the NOSB reviews the approved substances that “sunset,” as the law governing organics requires that the materials be reevaluated every five years.

Now, the semiannual NOSB meeting, scheduled for the week of October 21, in Louisville, Kentucky, has been canceled.  An e-mail distributed October 1 by Miles McEvoy for the National Organic Program, stated the meeting would be cancelled if a budget was not put in place by Thursday, October 10 at 5 p.m. EST.

“Progress in managing the organic industry, enforcement and oversight have all come to a screeching halt with the gridlock in Washington,” stated Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

The organic industry has been engaged in their own battle, pitting agribusiness interests and their lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, in frequent conflict with public interest groups representing the farmers, consumers, environmentalists and co-op retailers who helped build what is now a vibrant $30 billion industry.

The latest dustup concerns a power grab by the USDA that arbitrarily changes the rules for approval of synthetic and non-organic materials used in organics.   When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, it created a diverse 15-member NOSB with a minority of corporate agribusiness representatives.  And in an attempt to push the oversight of the industry towards consensus, the regulations require a two-thirds majority for “decisive” votes like reapproving a synthetic material for use in organics after it sunsets.

Barry Flamm

Barry Flamm

“The USDA has now turned the entire sunset process on its head,” said Barry Flamm, former NOSB chairman and chair of the policy development subcommittee for four years.  “The Board’s Policy and Procedures Manual, revised over the past few years, requires a vigorous sunset review which is beginning to show in the decisions.  The USDA’s National Organic Program’s (NOP) recent action disregards the Board’s policies and the Organic Act.  Importantly, instead of needing a super-majority of the Board every five years to continue using a synthetic in organics, the NOP has, without the legally required consultation with the NOSB, published an edict in the Federal Register requiring a two-thirds vote to instead remove a material,” Flamm explained.

Another highly respected former NOSB chairman, James Riddle, commented on the unilateral switch in policy by the USDA’s National Organic Program.  “The use of synthetic substances in organic production and processing is an exception, not an entitlement,” Riddle said.  “There must be an affirmative decisive vote of the NOSB for substances on the National List to be renewed.  Without affirmative decisive votes of the NOSB, substances sunset after five years.”

In 2012, The Cornucopia Institute published a report entitled The Organic Watergate, profiling what it called a corrupt relationship between giant agribusinesses that had invested in organics and USDA officials.  The report exposed the existence of biased technical reviews of synthetic materials considered by the NOSB and the stacking of the Board with agribusiness executives in seats that Congress reserved for farmers, scientists and other independent stakeholders.

“We focused sunlight on the fraud and deception in the process. The result was a turnaround in the NOSB, which has acted more judiciously in preventing some synthetics from entering the organic production stream,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s Codirector.

Since the release of that report, the NOSB has denied petitions for several synthetic preservatives proposed for use in infant formula, rejected unnecessary additives like sugar beet fiber (likely made from GMOs), and voted to discontinue the use of tetracycline, an antibiotic used to control fireblight on apples and pears, because of concerns regarding human health and environmental impact.

“The OTA and its members (WhiteWave, Kellogg’s, Smuckers, Safeway, etc.) have seemingly lost control with the process at the National Organic Standards Board,” observed Cornucopia’s Kastel

“In response it appears that the USDA is changing the rules of the game making it virtually impossible to remove synthetics from use in organics,” added Flamm.

In a blog posting Melody Meyer, the newly elected board chair of the OTA and the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), had a decisively different take on the USDA’s announced sunset changes.  She called for supporting the “gusto and vigor the program [NOP] delivers to our growing industry” while simultaneously describing the concerns by public interest groups as “lies” and “bogus.”

In addition to The Cornucopia Institute’s concerns about the USDA power grab, the reaction from some of the most prominent public interest representatives in the organic arena has been swift in universally condemning the procedural changes at the NOSB.

The Organic Consumers Association is circulating an electronic petition that now has over 11,000 virtual signatures condemning the USDA power grab.  Other noted organic advocates, including Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides, and Center for Food Safety have issued statements challenging the reversal in organic governance.

“The USDA might have received a temporary reprieve with the cancellation of the NOSB meeting this month in Louisville, but the stakeholders who truly care about the integrity of the organic label, and the principles it was founded upon, are not going away,” affirmed Kevin Engelbert, a certified organic dairy farmer from New York and another former NOSB member.

Since the release of the Organic Watergate report, the USDA has also taken away the right of the NOSB to review conflicts of interest from Board members and technical advisors with corporate entanglements.  The USDA has refused to follow NOSB annotations, or stipulations, governing the use of synthetic materials such as not allowing the additive carrageenan to be used in organic infant formula (well documented in independent research to be injurious to health and banned by other worldwide regulatory bodies).

The Cornucopia Institute has also criticized the USDA for siding with corporate interests on enforcement actions.  When it was learned that giant factory farms were confining chickens, sometimes 100,000 to a building, and not affording them “access to the outdoors” as required by organic law, the USDA sanctioned a loophole allowing the use of tiny porches, only holding a small percentage of birds, as a legal substitute for outside access.

“The institutional bias at the USDA, in favor of biotechnology and industrial-scale agriculture, needs to stop at its National Organic Program,” said Flamm, the former NOSB chairman.  “It should not take a court challenge to have political appointees and civil servants uphold the statute passed by Congress to protect farmers, ethical business participants, and consumers, engaged in organic commerce.”

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