USDA Power Grab

January 2nd, 2014

[A version of this story originally appeared in The Cultivator, The Cornucopia Institute’s quarterly print publication available to members and online.]

National Organic Program
Guts Synthetic Materials Decision-Making Process
By Will Fantle

usda-dollarsThe USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) stands accused of a power grab due to changing a fundamental decision-making process impacting organic food and agriculture. Miles McEvoy, the NOP’s Deputy Administrator, announced a dramatic change on September 13 to the process for approving the continued use of certain non-organic and synthetic materials in organics.

Non-organic and synthetic materials are banned from use in organics, but limited exceptions are allowed and itemized in federal organic regulations in what’s called the “National List.” Every five years each item approved for use receives a technical reevaluation to determine if continued use of the material threatens human health or the environment and if an organic-produced alternative is viable. This is known as the sunset process for if a material is not reapproved, its use in organic food and agriculture ends.

Jim Riddle

Jim Riddle

“The use of synthetic substances in organic production and processing is an exception, not an entitlement,” notes Jim Riddle, a respected former chair of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB was created by Congress in the Organic Foods Production Act 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.

The NOSB was supposed to be composed of various organic stakeholders with a minority of its members representing corporate agribusiness; other members come from the farm community, environmental, scientific and public interest organizations. And in an attempt to push the oversight of the industry towards consensus, the federal regulations require a two-thirds majority for “decisive” votes on such matters as approving a synthetic material for use in organics. This process is designed to ensure that wide agreement supports the use of the material in organic food and agriculture.

McEvoy’s recent memo, issued without any public discussion or debate, has arbitrarily changed the rules of the game. Instead of requiring a sunset material to win a two-thirds vote allowing continued use in organics, it would now require a two-thirds vote to remove a material from use. The change was justified as a way to “streamline” the sunset process.

“The USDA has turned the entire sunset process on its head,” says Barry Flamm, a former NOSB chairman and chair of the Board’s policy development subcommittee for four years. “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 added.

Many of the materials on the National List are not controversial. For example, hydrogen peroxide, livestock vaccines, and Vitamins B, C and E are allowed synthetics. Dairy cultures and yeast are allowed non-synthetics. Celery powder and pectin are examples of agricultural materials unavailable in organic form. In many cases, specific restrictions (annotations) are attached to these materials further defining and limiting their specific uses.

However, a number of materials are controversial and have caused heated debate at recent NOSB meetings. Carrageenan, narrowly reapproved for use by the NOSB in 2012, is a synthetic food additive that Cornucopia, along with other public interest organizations, has been extremely critical of due to its known inflammatory impact on the digestive system.

Large food manufacturers, with support from their powerful lobbyist the Organic Trade Association (OTA), are also increasingly petitioning the NOSB for the addition of more and more gimmicky nutraceuticals for use in organic foods. DHA was an intensely contested material that the corporate-dominated NOSB narrowly approved in 2011.

Following the DHA fight, The Cornucopia Institute began a careful review of the history of the materials approval process and published a report entitled The Organic Watergate. Cornucopia documented a corrupt relationship between USDA officials and giant agribusinesses that had invested in organics. 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,” observes Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s Codirector. “The result was a turnaround at the NOSB, which has acted more judiciously in preventing some synthetics from entering the organic production stream.”

The NOSB, since the release of The Organic Watergate, 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 over the process at the National Organic Standards Board,” adds Kastel.

That loss of control, and the tipping point that may have pushed the USDA into changing the materials approval process, could very well have been the NOSB’s failure last spring to reapprove continued use of the sunsetted antibiotic tetracycline in apple and pear production. Even though a majority of the Board favored keeping tetracycline on the National List, the decisive vote could not win the required two-thirds majority.

Industry representatives were stunned by the outcome. They have, however, been very supportive of the change in decision making by the NOP. Melody Meyer, the newly elected board chair of the OTA and the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods, Inc., wrote a blog post entitled “Stop the lies and get behind your National Organic Program.” In the post, she charged that concerns raised over the process change by public interest groups were “lies” and “bogus.” Meyer instead applauded the “gusto and vigor the program [NOP] delivers to our growing industry.”

Meyer’s comments followed the release of a joint statement from several Cornucopia allies, including Beyond Pesticides, Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, and Center for Food Safety, challenging the reversal in organic governance. The Organic Consumers Association has also been circulating a petition condemning the procedural change.

Jay Feldman, the Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides and a current member of the NOSB, says any change to the decision making process “should have been subject to public review.” He expresses a concern that instead of “driving the Board to consensus” as Congress intended on materials allowed for use in organics, members of the organic food community may “start to view the organic label as undermined.”

The OTA’s perspective proved too much for longtime member Jim Riddle. In a two-page open letter Riddle announced he could not, in good conscience, renew his membership. Riddle wrote that “Ms. Meyer displayed an alarming lack of understanding of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule, as well as disrespect for public interest groups who have been part of the organic movement from the beginning.”

Cornucopia and other organizations concerned with organic integrity are examining their options. “We may very well end up in a court battle over this latest abuse,” says Kastel.

“The stakeholders who truly care about the integrity of the organic label, and the principles it was founded upon, are not going away,” affirms Kevin Engelbert, a certified organic dairy farmer from New York, Cornucopia board member, and former NOSB member.

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