Farmers, Consumers and Public Interest Groups Square off Against Corporate Interests
ALBUQUERQUE, NM: Passions flared at the semiannual meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), last week in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as the federal advisory panel approved a number of synthetic ingredients for use in organics, over the objection of the majority of industry participants.
The meeting came on the heels of the release of a report by an organic industry watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, outlining corrupt practices in the constitution of the board and their past approval processes. The NOSB, created by Congress, is legally mandated to ensure that no substances are allowed in organic foods that pose a threat to human health or the environment.
The most controversial material approved at the meeting was carrageenan, a stabilizer and thickener synthesized from seaweed. Carrageenan has been shown to trigger gastrointestinal inflammation, which is known to cause serious intestinal disease, including cancer. “Degraded carrageenan,” which is present in all food-grade carrageenan, is classified as a “possible human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Academy of Science in United States.
“If there was ever a poster child for an ingredient that has no business being in organic food, or any food for that matter, it’s carrageenan,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Director of Farm and Food Policy at Cornucopia.
In their report, The Organic Watergate, issued earlier in May, Cornucopia documented what they called “systemic corruption” at the USDA that resulted in what was characterized as biased technical reviews and approvals of synthetics for use in organics. Their findings illustrated that the materials were being evaluated by food scientists working directly for corporate agribusiness and then approved by a body (the NOSB) illegally stacked with agribusiness representatives.
“The beauty of the law that was passed by Congress, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), was that the majority of 15 NOSB seats were reserved for farmers, consumer advocates, environmentalists and others public interest representatives as a balance to corporate power,” said Mark Kastel, The Cornucopia Institute’s Codirector. “The law has been ignored and the organic chickens are now coming home to roost—undermining the integrity of the organic label.”
“The Organic Trade Association (OTA), an industry lobby group, and its powerful members, can now get approval for virtually anything they want. It has turned the entire regulatory process into a mockery,” Kastel added.
The Cornucopia Institute, which is preparing to challenge the inappropriate board composition in federal court, also just filed a formal complaint with the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), Ms. Phyllis Fong, asking her to investigate the organization’s allegations.
In their complaint, they used NOSB member Carmela Beck as an example. Ms. Beck was appointed by USDA Sectary Tom Vilsack to serve on one of the seats reserved for an individual who “owns or operates” an organic farm. Ms. Beck neither owns nor operates an organic farm, but is a full-time employee of a giant privately-owned agribusiness, Driscolls, the largest conventional and organic berry producer in the United States.
“This is a clear-cut violation of OFPA, in which Congress charged the USDA with protecting organic stakeholders and consumers,” explained Kastel.
Cornucopia’s letter to the OIG also cited direct conflicts of interest on the board that should have caused certain members to recuse themselves from voting on carrageenan‘s relisting on the National List of approved substances in organics.
Ms. Wendy Fulwider, a full-time employee at the CROPP Cooperative (Organic Valley) and a NOSB member, appropriately disclosed a conflict of interest. Organic Valley had sent a representative to publicly lobby the board to approve carrageenan, citing Organic Valley’s use of the material in soymilk, whipping cream and chocolate milk. In addition, NOSB members reported direct contact from Organic Valley’s CEO, who had called them individually to lobby for their vote. And Organic Valley submitted written comments in advance of the meeting advocating that the board vote for the synthetic material.
However, the staff at the USDA’s National Organic Program ruled that Ms. Fulwider’s disclosure did not constitute a conflict of interest that required her to abstain from voting.
“If the direct economic impact of this vote on Organic Valley, and their covert and overt lobbying for carrageenan, does not constitute a conflict of interest, then nothing presented to this board will ever disqualify a member from voting,” lamented Cornucopia’s Kastel. “The fix is in.”
At the meeting, Michael Potter, CEO of Clinton, Michigan based Eden Foods, illustrated that companies do not need to sacrifice foundational organic values in order to compete in the $30+ billion industry. Potter, whose company is a respected and leading producer of diversified organic groceries, pleaded with the NOSB to act as a “gatekeeper” for the authenticity of organic food. He asked the board to employ the “Precautionary Principle” and to “always be certain that what they do is appropriate for organic food.”
Potter, who started his oral testimony by stating for the record that Eden Foods is not a member of the Organic Trade Association, told the board, “Organic food is supposed to be an alternative to industrialized food” and that he objects to “the greenwashing for more, easy, and cheap to produce, quasi-organic food.” He then poignantly asked the Board: “Should organic food be better for large corporations, or better for the people?”
After learning about the scientific research pointing to carrageenan’s serious human health impacts, Potter committed to removing carrageenan from the handful of Eden Foods products that currently contain it. This is in stark contrast to other companies, like Dean Foods (Horizon and Silk), Organic Valley, and Dannon (Stonyfield), which all sent representatives to the NOSB meeting to lobby for carrageenan’s approval in organics.
In addition to carrageenan, the board approved synthetic inositol and choline, two nutraceuticals, for use in all infant formula. This was a controversial decision as well, since the FDA only requires that these synthetic nutrients be added to soy-based infant formula.
“These nutrients are found naturally in dairy-based formula and many foods. It’s a risky gimmick to add their synthetic version to organic foods, which is the last refuge for parents seeking to avoid chemical additives and give truly natural food to their infants and children,” said Cornucopia’s Vallaeys.
The Cornucopia Institute has taken the official position that the NOSB, which is not a scientific panel, should leave decisions about required food fortification with synthetic nutrients to the FDA. At last fall’s meeting, the NOSB approved the use of the controversial synthetic ingredients DHA and ARA, patented by Royal DSM/Martek Biosciences Corporation, for use in formula and other organic foods. Neither are recommended or required by the FDA.
“The organic regulations allow any nutrient required by the FDA to be added to organic food. The NOSB should not be listening to lobbyists from pharmaceutical companies and trade groups like the International Formula Council. They should leave scientifically based decisions about the essentiality of synthetic nutrients to the FDA,” said Vallaeys.
“The decision to relist carrageenan, and to allow the synthetic nutrients choline and inositol for infant formula, prevailed by one vote,” Kastel observed. “There is no doubt that if the board were legally constituted, with truly independent members instead of corporate imposters, the decisions would be radically different and the true values of the organic movement would be upheld.”
While The Cornucopia Institute remains bullish on the organic label, it has published a series of studies and scorecards rating organic brands, to address the shortcuts some corporations are applying to organic production. These reports and scorecards empower consumers and wholesale buyers to make informed purchasing decisions. They can be found on the Cornucopia website.
“There is currently no alternative for consumers, who are seeking safe and nutritious food, other than direct, local marketing by farmers,” concluded Kastel. “Despite the corporate take-over of organics, dedicated organic customers are not going to go back to conventional food. There are just a few of the 300 or so synthetic and non-organic ingredients approved for use in organic food that are questionable—and we are going to work like hell to get them out. But in conventional food, there are thousands of highly toxic inputs, and there’s no doubt about the danger of many of these compounds.”
“The integrity of organic farming and food production,” noted Kastel, “is worth caring about.”
At an early juncture of the meeting, USDA staff attempted to remove Cornucopia’s Kastel from the speaker’s podium, preventing him from answering questions from NOSB members addressed to a “citizen-lobbyist” who had volunteered to present testimony on behalf of Cornucopia.
“At the previous NOSB meeting, last fall in Savannah, the board’s chairperson allowed a powerful lobbyist, working with Martek Biosciences Corporation and Dean Foods, to waltz up to the microphone and answer questions a Martek executive was unable to address, exactly as I was doing in Albuquerque,” Kastel clarified. “Our goal, on behalf of our 7,500 members, mostly organic farmers, was to be treated respectfully, in the same manner as corporate lobbyists had been at past meetings.”
The NOSB’s new chairman, Barry Flamm, decided to prevent anyone from assisting individuals testifying when questions arose. “We fully support chairman Flamm’s decision to level the playing field,” Kastel said. “Agribusiness interests have run roughshod over independent stakeholders in organics for too long.”
The Cornucopia Institute has prepared a guide to help consumers avoid foods with carrageenan, which has been shown to contain a carcinogenic substance, in their diets. The guide can be accessed here.
Other NOSB action in Albuquerque addressed:
- GMO vaccines: The board received public comment on the use of GMO vaccines for organic livestock. The Office of the Inspector General had found that the use of GMO vaccines in organic production is not legal, and the NOSB will seek to restrict their use.
- “Inert” pesticide ingredients: A list of synthetic ingredients found in some pesticide formulations used in organic production, including pheromone traps, has never been reviewed and approved by the NOSB. The board voted to expedite the review of other ingredients in pesticides.
- Agar agar: The board voted to relist the ingredient agar agar for approved use in organics, despite concerns raised by several groups, including Cornucopia, who requested that the synthetic form of agar agar be prohibited (because a natural form exists as an alternative).
- OIG investigation: According to Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General is conducting an investigation into the process for approval of synthetic materials. (The Cornucopia Institute had made a request for this to the OIG). Findings should be made public soon.
- An economic impact analysis is being conducted on the potential effect of enforcing the organic rule, which requires outdoor access for poultry, as well as the proposed rule to strengthen the organic rule by requiring at least 2 square feet per bird of outdoor space. (Cornucopia will request that the investigation must include an analysis of the economic impact on ethical family-scale organic farmers who currently do provide adequate outdoor access, and are unable to compete with industrial-scale organic producers who do not provide adequate outdoor access.)
- The NOSB discussed new procedures for receiving comments from the public. They proposed affirming the right of individuals and organizations to communicate with board members throughout the year. There was an abundance of discussion and concern about the recent practice of limiting public oral comments to 3 minutes. Historically, individuals and organizations have been allowed 5 minutes, with an additional 5 minutes with a qualified proxy from an organic stakeholder who could not be present at the meeting. It is Cornucopia’s position that the new constraints favor corporate agribusiness that can financially support travel costs for numerous lobbyists, consultants and executives to be present testifying on any single issue.
- The NOSB discussed a proposal to tighten conflict of interest guidelines for NOSB members. An abundance of questions came from board members regarding Cornucopia’s additional proposal that contractors performing Technical Reviews on behalf of the NOSB must identify themselves and declare conflicts of interest. Cornucopia also proposed that individuals and organizations presenting oral and written public comments identify the client(s) they represent with interests in the issue on which they comment. In the past, agribusiness consultants have operated under a cloak of secrecy in these regards, identifying themselves merely as “consultants” without disclosing their corporate clients.
- The following items are included on the Fall workplan for the NOSB: defining excluded methods (GMOs), aquaculture standards, pet food amino acids, changing the requirements for the diets of organic poultry, and livestock welfare standards for swine and beef.
The Cornucopia Institute is engaged in educational activities supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture. Through research and investigations on agricultural and food issues, The Cornucopia Institute provides needed information to family farmers, consumers, stakeholders involved in the good food movement, and the media.