Letter for strong organic standards

Sound Consumer October 2014 | by Trudy Bialic, Director of Public Affairs

At press time, at least 40 grocers and businesses from 17 states and Canada, including PCC Natural Markets, have joined together to send a letter to the U.S. Congressional Organic Caucus. We’re asking the Caucus to advocate reversing recent changes to the National Organic Program (NOP).

Two key authors of the Organic Food Production Act, Sen. Leahy and Rep. DeFazio, sent a letter on their own to the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, in April, saying they believe the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) changes to the Sunset Provision violate the intent and the letter of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). Three former chairs of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) also sent a letter of protest. We agree.

NOP staff has said in various settings that synthetics and other prohibited materials due to expire, or “sunset,” from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances were subject to being removed by a minority vote — that materials some interests wanted to renew weren’t getting enough votes. So, they said USDA changed the voting process. In other words, NOP staff has admitted it changed the rules to make it easier to keep synthetics on the National List.

OFPA established the two-thirds supermajority requirement for “Decisive Votes” [OFPA Sec. 2119 (i)] intentionally to set a high hurdle for prohibited synthetics to be allowed, even temporarily, in organics. Within the context of the overarching principle in Sec. 2105 [7 USC 6504], that foods labeled organic must be “produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals…,” Congress certainly intended the Sunset Provision to emphasize the temporary nature of exemptions.

USDA’s changes make relisting of synthetics much easier. Now, only six votes are needed for a synthetic to be allowed continued use, not the 10-vote supermajority mandated by OFPA. This assumes the full NOSB board even gets to vote in any review now, since the murky nature of how these materials would be handled in subcommittees seems to preclude a full board vote, if a subcommittee approves continued use. 

Now, even if nine NOSB members oppose relisting, a six-vote minority favoring continued use would determine the “Decisive Vote” to enable continued use. This is less than a supermajority for Decisive Votes, through any plain reading of the law.

OFPA’s framers meant clearly to establish a very high hurdle to add an exemption and to renew any exemption — not a high hurdle to allow, and a low hurdle to renew. We object especially that USDA announced such changes without full notice and opportunity for public comment as OFPA intended.

Subcommittee eliminated

We also are very concerned by NOP’s elimination of the Board’s Policy Development Subcommittee and control of the NOSB work plan and agenda. This top-down action suggests NOSB under the new rules no longer could create subcommittees of its choosing, such as the GMO subcommittee or a subcommittee on nanotechnology.

NOSB cannot advise the Secretary well if its authority to develop a work plan and agenda, or create committees and procedures, is diminished or denied.

Mandates ignored

Two other OFPA provisions appear to be contravened by USDA’s management of the organic program.

Sec. 2119 (j), “Other Terms and Conditions,” states, “The Secretary shall authorize the Board [NOSB] to hire a staff director…” To date, staff directors have been hired not by the Board as the law stipulates, but rather by USDA. This must be rectified.

Also, Sec. 2119 (j) (3), “Technical Advisory Panels,” (TAPs) says, “The Board [NOSB] shall convene technical advisory panels to provide scientific evaluation of the materials considered for inclusion in the National List…” To date, TAPs have been convened by USDA unilaterally, not the Board, as stipulated by the law. Selection of TAP reviewers by USDA has become so shrouded in secrecy that NOSB members do not even know who the TAP reviewers are. This must be rectified.

We’re asking the Organic Caucus to help reverse these changes. We’re asking USDA, respectfully, to use the full notice and comment rulemaking procedures when there are changes it considers important.

For more information

To read the letters from former NOSB chairs and Sen. Leahy and Rep. DeFazio, visit here.

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