The Consumer Reports National Research Center says that “questionable practices” remain in the regulation of the fast-growing organics industry. It is hoping that new public opinion research released today as the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) begins a four-day meeting in San Antonio will help narrow the divide between what consumers think they are getting and what industry regulation actually delivers. A representative survey of 1,016 adult U.S. residents, commissioned by Consumer Reports, found that 84 percent buy organic food and 45 percent do so at least once a month. Most think the organic label, which is sometimes called the USDA seal, means that no toxic pesticides were used (81 percent), or that no antibiotics were used (61 percent). However, Consumer Reports says that, while federal law prohibits synthetic substances in organic agriculture and food processing – including synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones and artificial food ingredients – the 15-member NOSB can and does issue exemptions for up to five years at time. In San Antonio, the NOSB meeting will include deliberations on several material exemptions, including use of the antibiotic streptomycin on apples and pears, synthetic materials for aquaculture (before standards for organic fish have been defined), artificial ingredients (methionine) in poultry feed, and how these exemptions are handled after the five-year permitted-use period has ended. Consumer Reports has long opposed the proliferation of exemptions and says that their renewed listing does not represent what consumers expect from the organic label. It says the recent survey underscores this point with seven out of 10 Americans expressing they wanted as few artificial ingredients as possible. “Despite the fact that the public does not want a host of artificial ingredients in their organic food, some national advisers and decision-makers in the National Organic Program have overtly expressed a desire to grow the exemption list in order to grow the organic market. We believe this violates the public’s trust of what organic means,” says Dr. Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. The survey also found:

  • Organic Produce: The majority of consumers think organic produce should not have pesticides (91 percent of consumers) or antibiotics (86 percent). The NOSB members will vote on ending the exemption for streptomycin on apples and pears, which has been re-listed many times.
  • Organic Fish: Nearly all consumers (92 percent) want at least one federal standard for organic fish. The vast majority of consumers think federal standards should require that: (1) 100-percent organic feed is used, (2) no antibiotics or other drugs are used, and (3) no colors are added. The NOSB is considering aquaculture materials  – despite the absence of standards – at this meeting
  •  Sunset Process: An overwhelming percentage of consumers (84 percent) think the use of artificial ingredients in organic products should be discontinued, if not reviewed, after 5 years; few consumers (15 percent) endorse continued use of the artificial ingredient without review.

In September 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program changed the review process. Under the new policy, an exempt material could be permitted indefinitely unless a two-thirds majority of the NOSB votes to remove an exempted (synthetic) substance from the list. The new policy allows USDA to relist exemptions for synthetic materials without the recommendation of the independent board and outside of public view, which used to be required. The original authors of the organic law, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), have urged USDA to reverse this policy change, saying that it “turns the sunset policy of the Organic Foods Production Act on its head” and is “in conflict with both the letter and the intent of the statute.” The issue of sunset will be raised as part of the public comment portion of the NOSB meeting.