Keeping Organic Strong: Changes in organic regulations and farming practices
National Organic Standards Board
Results from the Spring 2012 meeting of the National Organic Standards Board
In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) met to decide on a range of issues concerning allowable materials and practices in certified organic farming. The recommendations adopted by the board will be sent on to USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) for incorporation into federal regulations. A webcast of the entire four day meeting can be viewed here. Additionally, NOP has provided a short summary of the meeting.
On this page, you will find summaries of the significant actions taken by the board at the meeting along with supporting documentation. Each issue is discussed separately, incorporating Beyond Pesticides' positions on what the outcomes signify for the future of the organic movement.
This was the first meeting to be chaired by the newly-elected NOSB chairman Barry Flamm, who holds an Environmentalist position on the Board. This was also the first meeting for the five newest NOSB members, who were appointed at the Fall 2011 meeting: Harold V. Austin, IV, Director of Orchard Administration for Zirkle Fruit Company (Handler position); Carmela Beck, National Organic Program Supervisor and Organic Certification Grower Liaison for Driscoll’s, an organic berry producer (Producer position); Tracy Favre, Chief Operating Officer for Holistic Management International (Environmentalist position); Jean Richardson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Natural Resources, Environmental Studies and Geography at the University of Vermont (Consumer / Public Interest position); and Andrea (Zea) Sonnabend, Policy Specialist and Organic Inspector Specialist for California Certified Organic Farmers (Scientist position).
The next meeting of the NOSB will be held in Providence, RI on October 15-18, 2012. More information about this meeting will be posted as it becomes available. To find information about previous NOSB meetings go to our NOSB Archives page.
Committee Minutes Available: To see how the board subcommittees are proceeding in their work preparing for the next meeting and to review past work that has been done, you can read through the minutes from committee meetings on the NOP website.
Issues Discussed by the Board
Beyond Pesticides welcomes NOSB’s recommendation to review all inert ingredients, including those classified by EPA as “List 3” and “List 4,” as soon as possible. To clarify their decision, the Board recommended new language for the classification of inerts. Inerts will be classified as “other ingredients not classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as active ingredients, for use with nonsynthetic substances or synthetic substances listed in this section and used as an active pesticide ingredient in accordance with any limitations on the use of such substances.” List 3 inerts allowed in “passive pheromone dispensers” may only be used until December 31st, 2015, at which time they will be subject to individual review. This decision will bring organic standards back in line with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) requirements specifying individual review by the NOSB of all synthetic materials for use in organic production and processing. Beyond Pesticides is pleased with NOSB’s move towards greater transparency in food labeling.
Vote: Several motions were considered by the board including adopting a resolution to work toward reviewing all inerts, specific proposed regulatory language and definitions, and a backup vote to reapprove the current language. All motions passed the board unanimously.
The NOSB resolution requested additional detailed information from the NOP and other USDA agencies in order to create a meaningful and implementable record regarding the use of GMO vaccines. This recommendation included creating a list/tracking system specific to pathogens by strain, and updating the system regularly. NOSB also recommended the encouragement of truthful labels about the presence/ absence of GMO’s in vaccines. The Livestock Committee resolved to continue to work on a list of questions that would better inform the policy-making for GMO vaccines. The committee planned to revisit the issue at the next meeting. Beyond Pesticides is pleased that the board delayed this important decision. It is imperative to allow time for public review and input concerning livestock welfare and GMOs in organic production.
Vote to pass recommendation: Yes - 14, No - 0, Abstain - 1
NOSB voted to relist Carrageenan in a 10-5 vote. The proposal included the annotation that Carageenan would not be used in infant formulas. The recommendation also came with the intention of the Board to explore the matter and take it off the list eventually, “if possible.” Many on the board focused on the need to have an expiration date for this material, though a compromise on that issue was not reached.
Beyond Pesticides does not support the continued allowance of carrageenan in any organic processing because of possible serious health and environmental effects caused by the material. Caregeenan may cause “induction or promotion of gastrointestinal tract inflammation, ulcerations and/or neoplasms.” Board member Zea Sonnabend said, “There is one issue upon which the committee felt further research should be taken – the possibility that native carrageenan could cause significant amounts of polygeenan either by processing techniques or by acids during digestion. The committee suggested, if feasible, a molecular weight limit less than 5% below 50000 Daltons should be introduced into the specification to ensure the molecular weight of carrageenan in food is kept to a minimum.” This specification was not adopted for the final vote.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer recognizes degraded carrageenan as a “possible human carcinogen.” The harvesting of wild seaweeds for the manufacture of carrageenan is ecologically destructive to marine environments. Additionally, the USDA technical review noted that there are a number of viable substitutes for carrageenan.
Vote to reapprove with new annotation: Yes - 10, No - 5
Public Communications with the NOSB
The Policy Development Committee withdrew this recommendation to the NOSB board due to time constraints. There were some notable changes to public communication with the NOSB in the PDC proposal. They noted that NOSB members should be informed by the NOP of issues, but should also find information from independent sources. The committee proposed that the NOSB send advice/clarification/information to the Secretary of Agriculture after board meetings to facilitate public communication. Additionally, after a request for clarification by the NOP, the committee spoke about the NOSB accepting public communications outside committee/board meetings and public comment periods. NOP requested that these comments be sent to all members of the applicable committee, or, when appropriate, the entire NOSB board. Beyond Pesticides is pleased with the progress the NOSB made concerning public communication with the Board. We welcome a vote on the resolution at the fall meeting.
The National Organic Program determines whether or not a substance is a synthetic or not based on two elements: whether there is chemical change, or whether there is a significant residue of a synthetic in that product. The Board’s discussion focused on the need for NOSB to clarify what the term “significant” means when speaking about a synthetic substance in an organic product. Further discussion concerned the idea of creating language that identifies the removal of a synthetic product so that it does not interfere with a product’s organic classification. Beyond Pesticides encourages the board to define “significant residue” in a way that classifies the material as synthetic if any synthetic chemical is used in producing the material. Doing so will allow for a full review of these materials as required by the OFPA.
Solvents and Extractants
The Board resolved to continue their work on this issue. The Materials Committee presentation noted the need to clarify limitations on the use of extractants and solvents used in manufacturing materials and ingredients for organic food and farming. It also noted the importance of creating consistency in the classification process for these materials. When discussion the definition of “volatile synthetic solvents” the committee noted that the most widely used definition for volatility was, “a chemical with a boiling point less than 287 degrees Celsius,” hence a proposed definition for a “volatile synthetic solvent” was given as, “a synthetic chemical with a boiling point less than 287 degree Celsius that can dissolve another chemical.” The committee presentation noted from public input that ingredients which had extractants applied to them could conceivable end up in organic products, even though the ingredient in question would not qualify for organic certification. Beyond Pesticides urges the NOSB to adopt a policy which makes it clear that the use or presence of a synthetic solvent in an ingredient disqualifies the product from being labeled as “organic.” We believe the presence of a synthetic solvent in any material used in organic production or handling should trigger a full review of the material by the Board.
Public Comment Procedures
The Policy Development Committee withdrew this recommendation to the Board due to time constraints. The Policy Development Committee proposed that individuals will have 3 minutes to voice their comments, with possible 5 min. extension at the discretion of the board. Beyond Pesticides prefers a procedure where public commenters know in advance that they have a full 5 minutes to present their input to the Board. This would allow them time to prepare a more comprehensive statement in advance, instead of having the completion of their input subject to the discretion of the Board.
The Board’s proposal on research priorities is based on the discussion document from previous NOSB meetings. The committee made one change from the discussion document due to public comment. This change was the proposal to “focus on research needs that are relevant to accessing the need for alternative cultural biological and mechanical methods for materials on the national list.” The committee noted that this change would help the Board make more informed decisions about petitioned materials or those up for review. The proposal contains a process by which the Board determines important research areas relevant to upcoming NOSB decisions. They also resolved to support increased field research on organic management systems. The Board and public comments expressed their support for this proposal.
Vote to pass recommended framework: Yes - 14, No - 0, Absent - 1
Conflict of Interest Policy
The Policy Development Committee withdrew this recommendation to the Board due to time constraints with the following statement: our committee hereby requests complete written communication from the National Organic Program regarding how FACA informs our policy efforts. The Board outlined general procedures for declaring, evaluating, and acting upon a conflict of interest. The committee’s proposal kept the original policy for Conflict of Interest but strengthened the term “conflict of interest” by providing a set definition. The proposal also added procedural requirements for NOSB members to follow. These include deferring to the NOP instead of the NOSB to determine conflict of interest, and a requirement to disclose financial interests at the committee level. Beyond Pesticides is pleased that the Board is working towards increased transparency in their decision-making process.
The Board unanimously adopted the proposal to send a letter to Secretary Vilsack concerning the increasing number of genetically engineered crops gaining approval for commercial use by the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA). Beyond Pesticides is excited to see the Board exercise its right under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on this critical issue. The Board’s letter underlined the need for developers of GMO products to share the burden of mitigating gene flow between farms. Additionally, NOSB specifically called on producers to compensate organic farmers for genetic drift. Beyond Pesticides looks forward to the USDA and NOSB working together to prevent contamination of organic agriculture from genetically modified crops.
Vote to send drafted letter to Sec. Vilsack: Yes - Unanimous
Sanitizers and 100% organic status
This discussion concerned the legitimacy and virtue of the “100% organic” label, and whether the distinction from a simply “organic” label was necessary. The Board discussed process issues with how products are labeled 100% organic. For instance, it is possible for raw agricultural products such as apples labeled “organic” (not 100% organic because they were sanitized with chlorine) to be placed in juice labeled “100% organic.” It was pointed out that while products labeled 100% organic do not contain synthetic ingredients, they still may have come into contact with synthetic sanitizers. This prompted the Board to consider a proposal to more stringently define “100% organic” in terms of sanitizers involved in direct food contact, or get rid of the “100% organic” label.
At the request of the NOSB, the NOP clarified that there is a difference between food contact materials (processing aids such as antimicrobials) and surface contact materials (sanitizers used on belts bins equipment). They stated that food contact materials would preclude the 100% organic label while surface contact materials would not. This still leaves the question of “100% organic” apple juice made from only “organic” apples open. Beyond Pesticides believes the NOSB should clarify regulations on “100% organic” products in order to maintain their distinction as products without any contact with synthetic materials.
An amendment to the proposal to distinguish between natural and synthetic forms of Agar-agar was put forth, however NOSB did not adopt this distinction. Therefore, the synthetic form of the substance was allowed for continued use. Beyond Pesticides disagrees with the Board’s decision to continue the allowance of synthetic forms of the substance, due to the clear availability of its natural form. Moreover, the ecological impacts caused by the production of synthetic Agar-agar are not in line with organic standards.
Vote to reapprove: Yes - 11, No - 4
In response to a petition, the Board agreed that market supplies of organic curry and lime leaves do not meet current demand for the products. The Board agreed to allow the use of both these materials with the intent to re-assess market conditions when they come up for sunset review. Beyond Pesticides agrees with the Board’s recommendation and encourages a re-assessment of the material’s availability at the next sunset review.
Vote to add to National List as allowed material: Yes - 12, No - 2, Abstain - 1
In response to a petition, NOSB recommended choline be allowed for use in organic infant formulas. Beyond Pesticides believes that synthetic choline is an unnecessary ingredient in organic food. The manufacture of choline can cause harm to the environment by releasing toxic air pollutants, and the formulated synthetic product may contain toxic residues.
Vote to add to National List as allowed material, only in infant formula: Yes - 11, No - 4
In response to a petition, NOSB recommended inositol be allowed for use in organic infant formulas. An amendment to the recommendation which would have allowed inositol for use only in infant formulas labeled “made with organic,” and not those labeled “organic,” did not pass. Beyond Pesticides views inositol as an unnecessary synthetic ingredient in organic food, as it is not compatible with consumer expectations of organic products.
Vote to add to National List as allowed material, only in infant formula: Yes - 10, No - 5
In response to a petition, the Board recommended that gibberelic acid be prohibited from allowance on the National List. Beyond Pesticides applauds the Board for taking a precautionary approach to this synthetic substance. NOSB noted that industry has not proven that the material is necessary for transportation of bananas, adding that other methods currently in use right now are working fine.
Vote to add to National List as allowed material: Yes - 5, No - 10
There was an amendment proposed to constrain the use of calcium sulfate for use only as a coagulant in bean curd, but it was not adopted. Some on the Board reasoned that such a classification may come as a surprise to stakeholders such as brewers, who use this substance for other purposes. Consequently, several members of the board discussed the need to implement a better notification system to alert stakeholders when NOSB is discussing a material that may be of importance to their production process. Beyond Pesticides believes that there is not sufficient evidence to support the use of calcium sulfate for all food uses. We also encourage the Board work to on a better notification system for stakeholders in order to prevent this type of confusion at NOSB meetings.
Vote to reapprove: Yes - Unanimous
Beyond Pesticides supports the relisting of glucono delta-lactone, but would have preferred stronger language in the recommendation concerning restrictions on use and oxidation methods. We hope the board will revisit questions about the essentiality of this product at its next sunset review.
Vote to reapprove with restriction: Yes - 14, No - 1
Beyond Pesticides is pleased with the Board’s clear recommendation to exclude microcrystalline cellulose, and allow only powdered cellulose in organic processing.
Vote to reapprove with modified restriction: Yes - 14, No - 1
About the NOSB