October 2, 2014

USDA Takes Over Organic Program Eroding Organic Standards to Benefit Big Food

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by John P. Thomas
Health Impact News

Is the quality of the organic food you and your family eat being compromised for the sake of corporate profits? Organic Food consumer groups are raising this serious question in the face of the corporate takeover of the National Organic Standards Board.

Key organic food advocacy organizations met this week with the National Organic Standards Board and the staff of the USDA National Organic Program to confront them about the corporate power grab that is threatening to make the word “organic” just another meaningless word in the marketplace. The challenge against corporate control of the National Organic Program is being led by “organic watchdog groups” such as: Cornucopia, Organic Consumers Association, Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, and Food Democracy Now![1]

The National Organic Standards Board met in San Antonio, Texas this week. They discussed whether certain non-organic and synthetic substances should be on the National List of approved substances that are available for organic agriculture and organic food processing. Some substances in the following list are proposed and some are currently being used.

The substances on the agenda included: Streptomycin, Magnesium Oxide, Vinasse, Laminarin, Sulfurous Acid (sunset), Sodium Carbonate Peroxyhydrate (sunset), Aqueous Potassium Silicate – Methionine (used with poultry), Sodium Chlorite – acidified, Chlorine (used with animals), synthetic Tocopherols (used with animals), Trace Minerals (used with animals), synthetic Vitamins (used with animals), Vaccines (used with animals), Micronutrients (used with plants), Carbon Dioxide (used with plants), Chlorine (used with plants), Lignin Sulfonate (used with plants), synthetic Vitamins (used with plants), Ammonium Hydroxide, Glycerin, Polyalkylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether (PGME), Gellan Gum (sunset), Tragacanth Gum (sunset), Marsala and Sherry (sunset).[2] Substances that are marked with (sunset) refer to substances that would formerly have fallen off the National List of approved substances if the rules hadn’t changed in September of 2013. The sunset substances will now remain on the National List of approved substances until such time that a 2/3 vote of the NOSB removes them from the list.

The meeting was controversial, because of the new rules that were established by the staff of the National Organic Program in September of 2013, which changed the process for managing the National List. The new rules angered many organic food advocates, because the rules were changed without public comment, and because the rules favor the interests of large corporations. The changes will make it much more difficult to remove substances from the National List in the future. Detailed information about the change in the “Sunset” provision will be discussed below in the section about the history of the National Organic Program.

In September 2013, Deputy Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) at the USDA, Miles McEvoy, issued a controversial memorandum overturning two decades of precedents in terms of the NOSB’s self-governance.[3]

USDA Takes Control over the National Organic Standards Board

When the National Organic Standards Board met in San Antonio this week, USDA representative Miles McEvoy  took control over the chairmanship of the meeting. As Food Democracy Now! reported:

USDA representative Miles McEvoy has illegally taken over the meeting by appointing himself as meeting “co-chair” in an effort to erode the authority of, and control the decisions made by allegedly independent, NOSB members as spelled out in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990.[4]

When the meeting began, McEvoy used his new position as co-chairman to explain the new setup. He told the members of the National Organic Standard Board:

 The NOSB has only an “advisory” role governing organic standards and USDA staff sets all agenda items and makes all decisions.[5]

The Unilateral Changes Implemented by the NOP Staff Triggered a Protest at the Meeting

baden mayer arrest USDA Takes Over Organic Program Eroding Organic Standards to Benefit Big Food

Photo courtesy of Cornucopia.

Food Democracy Now! reports on the fireworks that happened Tuesday morning in San Antonio:

Just as the NOSB meeting was beginning Tuesday morning, a small group of activists gathered in front of the room to peacefully protest the USDA’s unilateral change of the “Sunset Provision” which governs the removal of synthetic ingredients from organic production.

USDA staff responded by calling local San Antonio police. After 15 minutes of chanting “Don’t change sunset!” the police arrested organic activist Alexis Baden-Mayer and carried her off in handcuffs for daring to stand up against the USDA’s watering down of organic standards.[6]

Alexis Baden Mayer USDA Takes Over Organic Program Eroding Organic Standards to Benefit Big Food

Photo courtesy of Cornucopia.

We are witnessing the corporate takeover of both the National Organic Program and the membership of the National Organic Standards Board. The trend that is unfolding is disturbing to those who are trying to protect the integrity and purity of organic food. As Will Fantle of Cornucopia News states:

Large food manufacturers, with support from their powerful lobbyist the Organic Trade Association (OTA), are also increasingly petitioning the NOSB for the addition of more and more gimmicky nutraceuticals for use in organic foods. DHA was an intensely contested material that the corporate-dominated NOSB narrowly approved in 2011.[7]

The approval of DHA oil is a clear example of corporate influence working against the public interest and the intent of the National Organic Program. DHA is used as an ingredient in organic baby formula. It is one of several substances on the National List that have a history of harmful effects on human health. Cornucopia reports on this in their online document: The Organic Watergate — White Paper: Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program:

Babies are experiencing diarrhea and vomiting, and serious complications, from conventional and organic formula with Martek’s [DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil] [8]

Martek Biosciences Corporation, owned by the $12 billion Dutch conglomerate Royal DSM, markets DHA oil from a strain of algae that was genetically modified through induced mutations with the use of radiation and/or harsh chemicals. Any technique that genetically modifies organisms or modifies their development through means that are not possible under natural conditions is strictly prohibited in organic food production.[9]

Despite the preceding information, the corporate dominated NOSB approved DHA oil for use in organic baby formula in 2011. There is good reason for being concerned about the decision making process at the National Organic Standards Board, and for speaking out against the abuse of power at the National Organic Program.

Click here to save organic integrity! Tell USDA Secretary Vilsack to reject the new corporate power grab over organic standards. It’s time to reverse the NOSB’s new rules that seek to weaken organic standards. Every voice counts!

Results of the 2014 NOSB Meeting in San Antonio

Several of the members of the National Organic Standards Board were unhappy with the change in rules. In some cases, the members of the Board protested by not voting in favor of items even though they were supportive of the proposals. A number of action items were discussed and referred back to the NOP staff and to subcommittees for additional study.

These are some of the actions that were taken regarding the National List. The National List contains non-organic or synthetic products that can be used in organic farming and organic food production even though they are not organic. The following edited information is based on notes provided by The Cornucopia Institute.[10]

Streptomycin will Sunset in October 2014

Streptomycin is an antibiotic that has been allowed as a last resort to control fire blight in organic apples and pears. It was supposed to Sunset on October 21, 2014. The NOSB Crops Committee submitted a proposal to extend the phase out until October 21, 2017, believing that would give orchardists more time to explore alternatives and more time for on-farm research to continue. Orchardists and NOSB members Harold Austen (Zirkle) and Zea Sonnabend (CCOF) made the motion to extend, but it failed to garner the required 2/3 majority to pass. Therefore, Streptomycin will be phased out this year.

Aquaculture materials Referred Back to Committee

All aquaculture materials proposed for farm-raising fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and algae were referred back to the Livestock Subcommittee. Another interesting twist was the addition of a motion to require the NOP to publish draft aquaculture standards and updated Technical Reviews before the Livestock Subcommittee would consider any aquaculture material listings in the future. This motion passed as well.

Methionine for Poultry Feed Referred Back to Committee

NOSB members took a stand against the new sunset policy by sending the methionine petition back to subcommittee though they would have supported it.

The methionine vote was long and complicated. Many felt that if they approved the language change that it would remain on the National List forever (because of the new USDA sunset rules) and would not stimulate a move towards the alternatives to synthetic methionine. However, the USDA NOP staff told the board members that they could not add an expiration date to the proposal because that constituted a “substantive change” and would have to be published in the Federal Register.

Therefore a motion was made by Thicke and seconded by crop producer Maravell. This motion passed 8 to 7. The methionine discussion will thus go back to committee and will probably show back up on the fall 2014 NOSB meeting in Louisville. In the meantime, the old rules for methionine apply, which is a hard cap of 2 pounds per ton of feed for broilers and layers, 3 pounds for turkeys and other fowl. Some say this is not good for poultry welfare, but poultry producers will have to wait until at least the fall for any changes to be made.

Magnesium oxide approved

Magnesium oxide was approved for use and was placed on the National List. The vote was 13 to 2. [The purpose of magnesium oxide is to control the viscosity of clay suspensions when farmers spray substances that are insoluble in water. This allows farmers to get uniform coverage when they spray finely powdered materials on their crops.]

Sunset Substances Referred Back to Committee

There were three materials due to sunset: Sulfurous Acid, Sodium Carbonate Peroxyhydrate and Aqueous Potassium Silicate. They were discussed by this subcommittee for the first time under the new sunset rules. The intention is to bring these back before the whole board at the fall meeting. [They will continue to be available on the National List.]

Ammonium Hydroxide and Glycerin Referred to Committee 

Ammonium hydroxide (boiler additive) and glycerin were referred back to committee for more study.

How Did the NOP Get Taken Over by the USDA? Let’s Look at the History

I think we would all like to believe that organic food is pure, clean, and safe from all harmful substances. But, that is not always true. Some exceptions are permitted. Some of the substances on the National List have serious health risks, yet they are retained because of the influence of large corporations. It is concern over the list of permitted substances, and the change in the review process for removing these products from the National List of approved substances, which is drawing national attention from people who are concerned about the quality of food they eat and provide to their children.

Many of the materials on the National List are not controversial. For example, …Dairy cultures and yeast are allowed non-synthetics. Celery powder and pectin are examples of agricultural materials unavailable in organic form. In many cases, specific restrictions (annotations) are attached to these materials further defining and limiting their specific uses.[11]

History of the USDA National Organic Program 

Cornucopia gives a good history about the USDA NOP in The Organic Watergate — White Paper: Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program:

When Congress passed OFPA [Organic Foods Production Act], it set up an independent advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which (unlike other advisory boards) has statutory authority. Any synthetic input or ingredient used in organic food production must be reviewed and approved by the NOSB to assure that no chemicals that could pose a threat to human health or the environment are used in organic food production.

The NOSB [National Organic Standards Board] also recommends policy and modifications to the regulations governing organic agriculture and food processing in the United States.

In part to placate concerns about handing over authority of the organic label to the federal government (it was previously a voluntary certification system), Congress specifically earmarked the majority of the 15 seats on the NOSB for organic farmers, consumers, scientists and environmentalists as a way to balance the power of commercial interests involved in organic food manufacturing, marketing and retail sales.[12]

Destroying the Credibility of the word “Organic”

A four pronged movement of corporate influence is weakening the National Organic Program and is destroying the integrity of the word “organic.”

Stacking the Board

The 15 seats on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) were intended for organic farmers, consumers, scientists, environmentalists and food producers. The goal was to balance the power of corporate interests with the interests of the consumer and those directly involved with organic food production. As time progressed, the membership of the NOSB began to shift. Independent-minded consumers, farmers, scientists, and environmentalists were replaced by representatives of corporations, who are largely motivated by the bottom line of corporate profitability. The weight of the membership now leans heavily toward corporate interests. For additional information about this transformation, I highly recommend reading “The Organic Watergate—White Paper: Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program,” prepared by the Cornucopia Institute.[13]

Protecting the National List

At the heart of the National Organic Program’s regulatory process is what is called the “National List.” This is a list of non-organic and synthetic products that are permitted for specific purposes in organic agriculture, or for the processing/manufacturing of certified organic food. When the National Organic Standards were created, the goal was to review the synthetic products on the National list every 5 years to see if they could be eliminated. This review process was called the Sunset provision. The hope was that new natural alternatives might be found to replace the items on the National List. If newer and safer products were found, then the old products could be allowed to fall off the list when their expiration date was reached.  This would make the substances prohibited from further use.

Substances on the National List would automatically fall off the list after 5 years, unless the NOSB decided by a 2/3 vote to put the item back on the list for another 5 years. In other words, there was a good possibility that items could fall off the list unless a super majority (2/3) of the consumers, farmers, scientists, and food processors could agree that the items should be kept on the list.

This plan changed dramatically on Monday, September 16, 2013 when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced new final rules without public comment. These rules changed how it would handle the sunset provision of the National List:

The NOSB will vote on any motions to remove substances from the National List. If a Subcommittee had published a proposal to remove a substance, then a member of the NOSB can make a motion to remove that substance from the National List. As specified by OFPA, two-thirds of the votes cast at the meeting shall be decisive of any motion (7 U.S.C. 6518(i)). For motions to remove a substance, this means that two-thirds of votes cast must be in favor of removal of the substance. A motion to remove a substance that does not receive two-thirds of the votes cast fails, and the substance will remain on the National List.[14]

The new rule turned the entire sunset process upside down and actually eliminated it. Now, substances no longer fall off the list automatically every 5 years. Instead, they stay on the list until a subcommittee of the NOSB requests that an item be removed from the National List. Substances stay on the National List indefinitely, or until 2/3 of the members of the National Organic Standards Board vote to remove an item. Since the National Organic Standards Board is dominated by corporate interests, there is a high motivation to keep substances on the list, because many of the items on the National List benefit large scale corporate food producers. Thus, even if these non-organic and synthetic substances have been proven to be harmful to human health, it will now be even harder to remove them.

An example of a harmful substance that is still on the National List is carrageenan, which has been added to many types of organic food since 1995, even though there continue to be serious health concerns. Research shows that carrageenan causes gastrointestinal inflammation.[15]

One type of carrageenan is listed by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as a “possible human carcinogen.”

Who would have thought, when members of the organic community lobbied Congress to set up a system to assure integrity in the organic industry, that we would find the National Organic Standards Board approving a food ingredient classified by the World Health Organization as a “possible carcinogen” in organic food?[16]

Biased Reviews of Substances on the National List

In the past, substances on the National List were to be scientifically reevaluated every 5 years. This involved examining the scientific literature to determine whether there was new information that might cause the NOSB to remove the item from the National List because of safety concerns. These reviews were often conducted by corporation scientists or by agencies representing corporate interests. They often ignored important research if it did not support the continued use of the substances. Cornucopia reports:

Inadequate TRs [product reviews] in the past were in part due to the bias and corporate affiliations of the scientists performing the reviews. Today, rather than moving away from technical reviews with corporate bias, the USDA is partnering with The Organic Center to perform technical reviews.

The Organic Center began as the nonprofit arm of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), an industry lobby group, and is generally controlled and funded by the same giant corporations that run the OTA.

The rest of The Organic Center’s leadership represents many corporations involved in organics: UNFI, Dean Foods, Earthbound Farms, Safeway, Organic Valley, and Whole Foods. Four individuals have a financial relationship to Dean Foods alone (WhiteWave Division/Horizon and Silk brands).

Non-organic and synthetic materials for use in organics are nearly universally petitioned by corporations involved in organics, or strongly supported by these corporations. Many of these corporations have executives sitting on the Board of The Organic Center (some of these same firms also have employees serving on the NOSB). The employees of The Organic Center are therefore not in a position to provide truly independent and credible technical reviews.[17]

Names of Reviewers Kept Secret

The names and affiliation of those who conduct scientific reviews of substances on the National List are kept secret. This means that the public is uninformed about potential conflicts of interest among the reviewers.

Where is the National Organic Program Headed?

Kevin Engelbert, a New York dairy farmer and past member of the NOSB answers this question:

“I see a clear disconnect between the successes gained by powerful economic interests in the $30 billion plus organic industry and the family-scale farmers who get their hands dirty for a living,”

Engelbert’s statement references corporate interests that are focusing their lobbying prowess on the USDA’s National Organic Program and facilitating a shift to factory farm production of milk and eggs, along with an exponential increase in the importation of organic commodities from developing countries, principally China.

“We seem to be headed for an organic marketplace with two distinct branches, which will force consumers to make an extra effort to ensure that the organic brands they purchase are truly high-integrity,” Engelbert added.[18]

Departure from the Original Intent of the Law

The corporate takeover of the National Organic Program has come to the attention of the congressmen who wrote the original law. They have spoken out against the changes implemented by NOP staff regarding the new rules for the Sunset provision of the National List.

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.” (Press Release here.)

Summary

It appears that the goal of corporate agribusiness is to lower the standards of organic agriculture by using more and more non-organic and synthetic substances. They want to use factory farming techniques and all the other mass production methods that they have been using in conventional food production, but under the organic label. In short, they want to obtain the financial gain of using the certified organic label, while not expending additional money to produce higher quality products.

They are happy to be organic in name only and to meet the lowest bar of organic production that is possible. They are using the organic label for corporate gain while destroying the meaning of the word “organic” for those who are working hard to produce the highest quality products.

If corporations continue to dominate the National Organic Standards Board and continue to control the staff of the National Organic Program, then we can expect to see greater weakening of organic standards. If this happens, then we will no longer be able to depend on the USDA to help us navigate between food options.

Instead, we will need to focus on personally getting to know the people who grow and manufacture our food. At one level this is very good. But for people who live in areas where they don’t have many options for meeting organic farmers and food producers this becomes a significant obstacle to obtaining the high quality food that they desire.

At this point, there is still an opportunity to bring correction to a system that has become corrupt. Please add your voice to those who are concerned about the destruction of the meaning of the word “organic”. Please use the following link and sign the petition to save organic integrity. Tell USDA Secretary Vilsack to reject the new corporate power grab over organic standards. It’s time to reverse the NOSB’s new rules that are weakening the organic standards. Your voice counts!

Sources

[1] “Take a stand for Organic integrity,” Food Democracy Now!, (e-mail) May 1, 2014

[2] “Comments to the National Organic Standards Board Spring 2014 Meeting, April 29 – May 2, San Antonio, Texas,” published by The Cornucopia Institute. Available as a PDF in the following article: http://www.cornucopia.org/2014/04/organic-activists-charge-usda-regulators-capitulating-corporate-interests/

[3] “Organic Activists Charge USDA Regulators Capitulating to Corporate Interests,” Cornucopia News, April 24th, 2014. http://www.cornucopia.org/2014/04/organic-activists-charge-usda-regulators-capitulating-corporate-interests/

[4] “The Great USDA Organic Sellout: Take a stand for Organic integrity,” Food Democracy Now!, (e-mail) April 29, 2014.

[5] IBID.

[6] “Take a stand for Organic integrity,” Food Democracy Now!, (e-mail) May 1, 2014

[7] “USDA Power Grab,” Will Fantle, Cornucopia News, January 2nd, 2014. http://www.cornucopia.org/2014/01/usda-power-grab/

[8] “The Organic Watergate — White Paper: Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program,” The Cornucopia Institute. Available as a PDF from The Cornucopia Institute’s home page http://www.cornucopia.org/

[9] “What are Martek’s DHA and ARA oils?” The Cornucopia Institute. http://www.cornucopia.org/what-are-marteks-dha-and-ara-oils/

[10] “Track the Fireworks at the USDA Organics Meeting in TX #NOSB,” Cornucopia Institute, Retrieved 5/2/2014. http://www.cornucopia.org/2014/04/track-fireworks-usda-organics-meeting-tx-nosb/

[11] “USDA Power Grab,” Will Fantle, Cornucopia News, January 2nd, 2014. http://www.cornucopia.org/2014/01/usda-power-grab/

[12] “The Organic Watergate — White Paper: Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program,” The Cornucopia Institute. Available as a PDF from The Cornucopia Institute’s home page http://www.cornucopia.org/

[13] IBID.

[14] “National Organic Program—Sunset,” Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, 7 CFR Part 205, [Document Number AMS–NOP–13–0057; NOP–13–03].

[15] “The Organic Watergate — White Paper: Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program,” The Cornucopia Institute. Available as a PDF from The Cornucopia Institute’s home page http://www.cornucopia.org/

[16] IBID.

[17] IBID.

[18] “Organic Activists Charge USDA Regulators Capitulating to Corporate Interests,” Cornucopia News, April 24th, 2014. http://www.cornucopia.org/2014/04/organic-activists-charge-usda-regulators-capitulating-corporate-interests/

 

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