Rumblings over a new USDA policy about which synthetic (non-organic) materials can be used in organic agriculture sparked heated blowback on legal and political fronts during a four-day meeting late last month of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in Texas. Those against the new policy believe it could make it more difficult for the NOSB to phase out allowable synthetic and non-organic materials from organic foods and therefore weaken organic standards.

Members of the Organic Consumers Association held a protest at the
recent National Organic Standards Board meeting in San Antonio, TX.
Attracting the most media attention was the April 29 arrest of Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, who was handcuffed and hauled away by the police. Banner waving and chanting against the change also marked opposition tactics during the meeting. “It’s a terrible change to the process,” Baden-Mayer, who was charged with criminal trespass and released on a $1,000 bond, told a Capital Press reporter. Then there was a letter fired off to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack several days before the meeting  by two members of Congress — the principal authors of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act — expressing dismay over the new policy and asking USDA to review it. Synthetics? What’s this all about? But wait. Isn’t food bearing the organic seal supposed to be produced without the use of materials such as synthetic pesticides and factory-made fertilizers? The answer to that question is, “Yes, almost always — but not always.” It turns out that some crops or livestock can’t be raised without synthetic materials. But that doesn’t mean farmers get a free pass to use them forever. Instead, these materials are put on a “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances,” which lists exceptions to the ban on synthetics in organic farming. After five years, under a “sunset process,” the material in question is to be automatically removed from the list — unless a two-thirds majority of the NOSB votes to keep it on the list. At least, that’s the way it’s been done for the past decade. The underlying goal of the “sunset process” is to motivate the industry to find or develop organic alternative materials. This, in turn, fits in with the consumer’s desire to keep foods bearing the organic seal as “pure as possible.” An important part of this process is the opportunity for interested parties such as farmers, processors, consumers and organic groups to submit comments during two public meetings. A good example can be seen in what happened to hops, a key ingredient in beer. Previously, non-organic hops were allowed to be used in organically made beer. But, in 2010, the NOSB allowed conventional hops to sunset from the list, effective 2013. As a result, only hops that are grown organically may now be used in beer that’s labeled organic. Although the system appeared to be working well, USDA reversed this policy last fall without going through a public process to do so. Now, even though the materials will still be reviewed, a synthetic material will stay on the National List unless a two-thirds majority of the board votes to remove it. In other words, it’s going to be harder — some opponents say almost impossible — to remove these materials from the list. “The land of the midnight sun,” is how Mark Kastel, co-founder of organic industry watchdog Cornucopia, describes this change to the sunset process. It matters, he said, because it’s about consumer confidence and the integrity of the industry. “Organics is not supposed to be controlled by corporate interests or by minions at the USDA,” he told Food Safety News. “It’s supposed to be an alternative to conventional agriculture, and the lines between the two shouldn’t be blurred. The NOSB plays a key role in this. The NOSB meetings are where the rubber hits the road.” Kastel said that the concern now is that a troubling number of current NOSB members are representatives of industry heavyweights such as Earthbound Farm, Driscolls, Whole Foods, CROPP Cooperative and Zirkle, although smaller-scale farmers and processors are also in this mix of members. “It’s a power grab,” he said, referring to the larger companies and their increasing influence on the industry, which, at its beginning, was rooted in family-scale farms and operations. But Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, told Food Safety News that what’s referred to as “big food” or “big ag” sometimes involves large companies contracting with many small farmers and processors. “It’s potentially misleading to draw bright lines between the two,” she said. Why does this matter to you and me? A lot of it comes down to who’s running the show. At the heart of the controversy is NOSB’s role in providing advice to USDA on which substances should be allowed or prohibited in organic farming and processing based on criteria under the Organic Foods Production Act. Established in 1990, the 15-member citizen oversight board represents different sectors of the industry: growers, processors, retailers, consumers, environmentalists, a scientist and an organic certification representative. As such, it is not supposed to be in the grip of USDA, but rather an entity that the agency turns to for advice and counsel on this issue and others. Corncopia’s co-director Will Fantle said the board was created to be a buffer to prevent total control of the organic sector by USDA and big agribusiness interests. However, as organics has grown from a “step-child” of agriculture to a full-blown powerhouse, with an expected $35 billion in revenues this year, some smaller-scale organic farmers and processors say “Big Ag” has jumped on board, many times buying smaller organic farms and companies. Fearing their voices are being drowned out, they point to the current NOSB membership as an example.

But Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of USDA’s  National Organic Program, who sent out the memo about the new “sunset” policy, said in an email to Food Safety News that the reforms protect organic farmers and consumers by ensuring that any changes to organic rules, including adding items to the list of approved synthetic materials, are only made with the support of a strong majority of the board.

“We are also increasing public engagement and transparency with more opportunity for public comment,” he said. “We believe providing greater authority to the citizen advisory board and increasing public input are positive changes. USDA strongly supports organic agriculture, and is responsible for establishing a level playing field for all organic farms and businesses. Public participation and comments are vital to USDA’s work in organics. We encourage all members of the public to take part in future formal comment opportunities.”

Under the “next steps” listed in his memo is a bulleted item stating that streamlining the process involved in the “sunset process” should be continued.

OTA’s Batcha said this streamlining will free up staff to put more effort into other areas of concern to organic consumers such as animal welfare and enforcement.

“Consumers’ perspectives move quickly and the regulations also need to move quickly,” she said.

The new policy (“Sunset” Review of the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances) was put up on the Federal Register on Sept. 13, 2013, for public inspection and replaces the March 4, 2010, memorandum from the National Organic Program to the NOSB regarding the “sunset process.”

What about the list? So what are some of the non-organic materials on the list? And what does this have to do with food safety? One of them is as benign as baking powder. It’s there simply because there is no organic substitute for it. But some others have raised controversy, with petitions against their use attracting tens of thousands of signatures or more. One of these is carrageenan, which is used as a thickener and emulsifier in products such as ice cream and nut milks. The controversy stems from some studies that say it may be harmful to the intestinal tract; other studies dispute that. OCA’s petition to remove it from the National List has been signed by 15,050 organic consumers. Another is methione, a synthetic feed additive that provides an essential amino acid needed by fast-growing chickens, which OCA says don’t have access to pasture and are being raised on a nutrition-poor diet of corn and soy. OCA’s petition demanding real outdoor access for organic chickens has been signed by 36,947 organic consumers. During the recent NOSB meeting, some producers wanted to see the allowable amount increased that would be fed to chickens during certain stages of their growth, but the board chose not to vote on it. Also on the National List are synthetic nutrient vitamins and minerals and also sausage casings from the intestines of non-organic animals, which opponents say are likely produced on “factory farms.” USDA provides information here about the National List sunset dates. Some good news on antibiotics A significant move during the recent NOSB meeting came when members agreed not to extend the sunset deadline for ending use of the antibiotic streptomycin, which is used to control fire blight, a potentially devastating disease that can hit apple and pear orchards. Instead, the board voted in favor of the Oct. 21, 2014, expiration date.

Members went one step further and chose to stop the use of all antibiotics in organic agriculture. “USDA Organic is now 100-percent antibiotic-free!” states an article on the Organic Consumers Association’s website.

Politicians weigh in U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy  (D-VT) and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), in their April 24 letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack, described the new sunset policy as “a conflict with both the letter and intent of the statute (the Organic Food Production Act).” The letter also decries that “such a substantive policy was made without the benefit of full notice and comment.” According to the letter, the new policy “turns the sunset policy of the Organic Foods Production Act on its head” and “is counter to the key principals of public involvement and oversight in the organic certification process as well as adhering to the highest standards possible for organic food production.” The two senators urged Vilsack to reverse this policy change and add this suggestion. “. . .  if, after consulting with Congress and the full spectrum of the affected organic community, you still believe this change is necessary, we strongly recommend that you use the full notice and common rulemaking procedures to do so.” As of May 11, Vilsack had not yet replied to the letter.

But, in an email to Food Safety News, McEvoy of USDA said that while the agency does not intend to revisit the new process, it has taken steps to notify various congressional offices about these changes.

“We have taken into account concerns raised by this process, and we are working on clearing up misinformation and educating consumers and organic stakeholders on this issue,” echoed Sam Jones-Ellard, public affairs specialist with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.