(Beyond Pesticides, September 19, 2013) In a move decried by consumer and environmental groups as severely weakening the meaning of the organic label, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced this week that the agency has changed the process for exempting otherwise prohibited substances (such as synthetics) in food that carries the “organic” or “made with organic” label. This decision makes it easier to continue use of artificial ingredients and substances, undermining integrity of the organic label. Additionally, the changes are effective September 17, only one day after the announcement, and no public comment period was provided for the changes to this policy, which has been in place since 2005. Read the joint statement issued by Beyond Pesticides, Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, and Food and Water Watch.
Under the federal organic law and prior to the announcement, there was a controlled process for allowing the use of substances not normally permitted in organic production because of extenuating circumstances. Under the Organic Foods Production Act 7 USC 6517 (e) Sunset Provision, “No exemption or prohibition contained in the National List shall be valid unless the National Organic Standards Board has reviewed such exemption or prohibition as provided in this section within 5 years of such exemption or prohibition being adopted or reviewed and the Secretary has renewed such exemption or prohibition.”
Under the law, these exemptions are authorized for a five-year period, in order to encourage the development of natural (or organic) alternatives. The exemptions are required by law to expire, known as “sunset,” unless they were reinstated by a two-thirds “decisive” majority vote of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and include a public review. While this is the law, USDA has said it will no longer operate the program in this manner.
The USDA’s recent decision now puts the burden of identifying exempted materials for removal largely onto environmentalists and consumers. 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, as required by current law.
“The USDA’s decision minimizes all incentives for creating organic, natural alternative ingredients and lowers the standard for what consumers can expect behind the organic label. Allowing the USDA to automatically relist materials without the recommendation of the NOSB erodes the Board’s legal authority over materials decisions, a key to consumer trust in the organic label. The fact that the agency made this decision without any public input only adds to the violation felt by watchdog groups and consumers alike,” the groups said.
“Potentially allowing an indefinite listing of non-natural ingredients and requiring a super-majority vote to retire a substance after five years undermines the spirit of the law for how materials head into “sunset” or retirement. It is unfair to producers trying to produce a truly organic product and it is unfair to consumers trying to make meaningful purchasing decisions. Simply put, this lowers the bar for much of the organic market. We believe USDA must reverse course and we intend to mount a fierce campaign to hold the agency accountable to the millions of Americans who expect more from the government””and the organic label.”
For more information:
- See the Updated Sunset Process Here
- See USDA NOP’s Questions and Answers on the New Petition Process
- See Beyond Pesticides’ Response
- Joint Statement of Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides and Center for Food Safety (also see below)
Keeping Organic Strong:
We need your voice now more than ever. NOSB will meet in Louisville, Kentucky from October 22-24 to decide on a range of issues regarding the future of organic food and farming in the United States. The Board is now accepting public comments until October 1, 2013 for its upcoming fall meeting, to be held October 22-24, 2013 at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, KY (140 North Fourth St., Louisville, KY, 40202). Beyond Pesticides has compiled a list of the issues before the Board, which can be viewed on the Keeping Organic Strong website. We strongly encourage all those concerned about the future of organic food to review the issues and submit a public comment to the NOSB. The 15 member Board meets twice a year to review substances petitioned for allowance on the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances” in organic production and processing.
Written comments on the proposals can be submitted until 11:59 pm on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 at regulations.gov. You can also attend the NOSB meeting in person to provide oral comments before the Board. Pre-registration to provide oral comments must be completed by October 1, 2013. You can register to provide a public comment here.
It’s important to remember that while we raise our voice in defense of the integrity of the organic label, organic farming is still significantly better for human health and a cleaner environment than its conventional, chemical-intensive counterpart. Through public involvement, we must protect the integrity of the organic label and the process that supports it. Otherwise, the market will disappear and with it the opportunity to solve serious environmental and health problems associated with chemical-intensive practices. Organic agriculture embodies an ecological approach to farming that focuses on feeding the soil and growing naturally healthy crops, whereas chemical-intensive agriculture depends on toxic chemicals and inputs which poison the soil, as well as air, water, farmworkers and consumers. As opposed to conventional chemical agriculture, where there are tens of thousands of synthetic materials, including over 200 registered pesticide active ingredients, there are currently only around 50 entries on the “National List” of allowable synthetics. And all of these products have been reviewed for their human and environmental health effects, essentiality to organic production, and their compatibility with the values of organic as it pertains to the Organic Foods Production Act. The public may also file a petition to amend the National List, either by removing a material currently on the list or by adding a new one. Public involvement is a vital part of the development of organic regulations. The NOSB needs to know what the organic community wants and expects from its food.
For more information on what you can do, see Beyond Pesticides’ Keeping Organic Strong website, which provides a number of resources for people to participate in the organic review process alongside the Board.