Insights by Goldie: Watchdogging organic standards and the devilish details

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in January 2009

Each time a revision of a guideline, rule or other regulatory action is proposed by federal agencies — including the Department of Agriculture (USDA) or Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — it’s published in the Federal Register.

The clock immediately begins ticking against whatever deadline is stated for the public to file any comments or raise objections, the public’s only opportunity.

The length of time typically ranges from 30 to 90 days — with shorter timeframes increasingly the norm during the final months of the Bush administration. We (“the public”) have been besieged with regulatory rule changes, proposals and filings.

The apparent goal is to roll back consumer health and safety protections, product regulations, and environmental safeguards. What couldn’t survive open legislative scrutiny is happening rapidly now.

The Washington Post reports that 130 fast-tracked rules were expected to be fully completed before the end of the Bush term — 100 were completed from September to November.

Critics say that the more fully complete the regulation (having cleared all administrative hurdles), the less likely any quick reversals would be in the incoming administration. Reversals require millions of dollars (scarce) and years of staff time to analyze and address even a few “re-dos.”

Pasture standards
In the midst of watchdogging and commenting on the flurry of Federal Register filings out of USDA and FDA, we were stunned when the National Organic Program (NOP) of USDA unexpectedly published a long-awaited Proposed Rule for Access to Pasture (Livestock) on October 24. When I say “long-awaited” — believe me.

Longtime readers may recall that I served on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) as a consumer representative from January 2001 to 2006. Access-to-pasture standards were a front-burner controversy all those years and our board unanimously approved and submitted recommendations in 2005 to the secretary of agriculture. We urged that they be implemented as formal regulations as soon as reasonably possible, since “guidelines” are not enforceable, like regulations, by NOP.

NOP published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on pasture in the Federal Register in April 2006. Nothing happened for 18 months, then NOP published it October 24, 2008 in the frenzied days before the national election, at the start of the holiday season — and gave only 60 days for public comment, by December 23. A 30 to 60 day extension is being sought and hopefully will be granted.

Relief that the pasture rule was published at all quickly turned to shock and dismay. Many sections and regulations were added — devilish details that do not reflect the spirit or letter of the standards. Some might be impossible for many organic beef producers to meet. The NOP has scheduled “listening” sessions, which is hopeful and useful. But that misses the point.

These proposed pasture standards were not developed by nor voted upon by the NOSB. NOP administrators circumvented the organic standards board, a very serious omission (or commission). NOP overstepped its authority.

Congress in 1990 specifically gave the NOSB a broader role than usually is allowed advisory boards under the “federal advisory boards act.” That’s been a thorn in the side of numerous USDA career staff but it clearly makes the NOSB role critical — as a hedge against pressure from consolidated agribusinesses that want more influence over the organic label than is healthy.

Organic net pen finfish?
Finally, you may have read already about what, for me, is the most sad and shocking of all. The current 14 member NOSB voted in November, 10 to 4, in favor of developing farmed salmon as USDA certified organic. This board would approve open-net ocean pens, which already are flushing pollution, parasites and waste directly into public waters.

Furthermore, if ultimately approved, certified “organic” fish would be fed 25 percent non-organic fishmeal made from wild fish and/or possibly contaminated with mercury and PCBs. Net pens have an established history as the ocean equivalent of confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs). Factory farms are as opposite to organic as imaginable.

As PCC said in official remarks to USDA, not all food production methods can meet organic standards. Wild fish, for instance, are not certifiable as organic.

The NOSB (at least 10 of its members) appears to have lost touch with its mission to create strong standards, to defend and elevate them on behalf of organic consumers and producers who depend on trust and respect in the USDA Organic label.

The good news: it’s not a done deal. The minute the NOP publishes the Notice of Rulemaking, we’ll be on it.

Also in this issue

Shopping and eating on a budget

No doubt the financial meltdown is causing us to rethink spending on even the most basic necessities — and food is no exception. Some people are choosing more economical meats (indeed, sales of Spam are skyrocketing), while others are eating out less frequently; 45 percent of Americans report cutting down on the number of meals they ate out in 2008.

Getting your fruits and vegetables:

How many times did you hear "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" while growing up? It's true. Increasing scientific evidence shows the preventive health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables — lots of fruits and vegetables. Perhaps we should start saying 10 apples a day keeps the doctor away.

News bites, January 2009

Washington state organic survey, New NOSB chair, EU allows deviant fruits and vegetables, and more