Update:  We want to be clear about the discussion in the commentary below regarding the certifier OCIA and the letter sent to the USDA by the umbrella group Accredited Certifiers Association.  In addition to OCIA’s board, the staff of the organization was likewise unaware of this letter being sent by the ACA to the USDA.

In a move truly deserving of the comment “You can’t make this stuff up,” illustrating the widening divide in the organic community the USDA’s National Organic Program announced this week that they would require public interest groups, educators, and the public to get their blessing before using the USDA organic logo in media coverage.

CI_NOSBUSDAdisputeOrwellMaybe this edict isn’t entirely Orwellian, and maybe it’s not Stalinistic, but it sure smacks of how the press operates under Premier Vladimir Putin.

After months of pointed criticism, and press coverage, of a series of allegedly illegal power grabs by the USDA, stripping authority Congress vested in the advisory panel it created, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the USDA has figured out a way to resolve the dispute — control the message.

Their quarterly newsletter, distributed this week, recapped the recent NOSB meeting in San Antonio, Texas. It was one of the most contentious meetings in the history of the organic movement. It included a protest that initially shut down the proceedings and a parliamentary challenge to the illegal power grab by NOP staff director Miles McEvoy.

The protest ended after police came in for an arrest and the challenge, under Roberts Rules of Order, endorsed by a number of board members, only ended after a long adjournment where Mr. McEvoy conferred with his staff (and superiors and lawyers in Washington by phone) and subsequently threatened to shut the entire meeting down and send everyone home if the parliamentary motion challenging his authority wasn’t withdrawn.

But if you read the USDA’s Organic Integrity Quarterly you might question the “accuracy” of their story. There’s not a word of any dispute at the meeting even though, besides the protests, numerous citizens and public interest groups, in formal written and oral testimony, condemned the USDA’s actions.

And this meeting came on the heels of a letter written to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack by the two primary authors of the Organic Foods Production Act, the law that gave the USDA the authority to establish the NOP in the first place. Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter DeFazio clearly stated that the USDA moves were a violation of congressional intent and requested their immediate reversal.

Not a word about any of this in the USDA’s quarterly organic newsletter.

But now the USDA wants to read anything The Cornucopia Institute, a corporate and governmental watchdog in the organic arena, or any other public interest group intends to publish if we want to use the USDA organic logo.  This logo is owned by the citizens of the United States of America.

Now don’t get me wrong. Their advice to commercial interests, to have their certifiers review labels where they might use the USDA seal, for compliance with the law, is sound. But stifling constitutionally protected free speech? No, that’s a gross overstep of power.

Cornucopia’s Board President, a third-generation certified organic farmer from Durand, Wisconsin, Helen Kees, after reading this newsletter instructed Cornucopia staff to “Give ’em hell” and included a referral to an experienced constitutional lawyer. We doubt it that will be necessary. Someone at the USDA will be wise enough to not kick that hornet’s nest.

The former Soviet comic Yakov Smirnoff recently appeared on National Public Radio. He talked about how his standup routine was censored before he immigrated to the U.S. NPR’s Bob Garfield said, “He wasn’t making it up, well, except for the name, ‘Department of Jokes,’ which was actually the Humor Department of the Censorship Apparatus within the Soviet Ministry of Culture.”

So I guess I should have submitted this commentary for Mr. McEvoy to refer to his “Department of Sanitation” within the USDA Ministry of Culture.

The divide between the corporate sector/USDA and traditional organic agriculturalists is actually no laughing matter.

USDA Secretary Vilsack addresses the Organic
Trade Association’s Policy Conference on May 21.
Deputy Administrator McEvoy seated left-center.
Source: OTA

In addition to Mr. Leahy and Mr. DeFazio, virtually every public interest group, that monitors the organic industry, along with consumers and farmers, called for the reversal of the heavy-handed moves by the USDA alleging that they are going to undercut the credibility of the organic label.  Only powerful industry interests are siding with the regulators.

And who is on the other side? The clout-heavy industry lobby group, Organic Trade Association, United Natural Foods Incorporated (the largest organic food distributor), Stonyfield and the nation’s largest organic certifier, CCOF.

More recently, and disturbingly, the umbrella group for the nation’s organic certifiers, the independent inspectors/auditors that act as agents of the USDA, overseeing farms and giant corporate processors alike, have chimed in, coming to the USDA’s defense.

The certifiers are supposed to be the independent umpires. The only thing that assures that they will not be biased, in favor of their clients who write them their paychecks, is the judicious oversight of the USDA’s accreditation and auditing of these entities. And now you have them buttering up Mr. McEvoy and helping in his damage control campaign? How unseemly.

What makes it even more unseemly is the fact that the board of directors at two of the largest certifiers, CCOF and OCIA, say they never were informed by their staff of their organization’s endorsement of the controversial moves at the USDA.

The organic movement has always been about transparent debate and the focal point has always been at the semi-annual meetings of the National Organic Standards Board. That board can no longer set its own work plan and agenda, and Mr. McEvoy has now effectively appointed himself co-chairman of the board.

All that would be bad enough but now he wants to control the news and censor dissent. Those of us who care deeply about the ethical precepts that the organic movement was founded upon will not let that happen.

Mark Kastel, Codirector
The Cornucopia Institute

Please help ramp-up the pressure on the USDA to reverse their “power grab” by sharing this commentary on Facebook – “click here.”

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