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Preserving the Integrity of the Organic Label
Reporting from the National Organic Standards Board Fall 2014 Meeting
“Organic” is a meaningful label for consumers interested in supporting sustainable agriculture and reducing their exposure to pesticide residues, GMOs and artificial food additives. The organic law prohibits synthetic inputs and ingredients in organic food production, but allows for exceptions to this rule. We believe that the organic label remains meaningful even when there are exceptions, because the organic law contains many safeguards and restrictions for what can be allowed. We are concerned that those protections are slowly being dismantled or ignored, including at the most recent National Organic Standards Board meeting. The exceptions — the synthetic inputs and non-organic ingredients that are allowed — were meant to provide temporary solutions to very real problems faced by a growing organic food industry. For example, how does an organic baker transform organic wheat, butter, eggs and sugar into an organic cookie when certified organic baking soda simply does not exist? This is why the law requires that otherwise prohibited materials could be allowed if they are considered essential, pose no risk to human health or the environment and are compatible with organic farming and handling. Few would argue against allowing an exception for a kitchen staple such as baking soda. Another safeguard built into the law is the Sunset clause, which ensured that materials that are otherwise prohibited would be allowed only for a five year period, unless they are re-approved after five years. Since exemptions are meant to be temporary, the Sunset clause provides incentives to the industry to develop and commercialize natural and organic alternatives. Congress then charged a 15-member expert citizen panel, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), with the important role of being the gatekeeper of the list of approved materials (“the National List”). And to top off the safeguards, Congress required that the NOSB approve an exemption by a supermajority (2/3) rather than a majority (1/2) vote. This is how the process is outlined in the law. Based on this process and these safeguards for preserving the integrity of the organic label, we believe the “organic” label could be highly meaningful. But the USDA has lately been chipping away at these safeguards, and the NOSB too often ignores the protections written in the law. We attended the most recent biannual meeting of the NOSB to advocate for keeping the organic label strong — urging the Board members to base their National List decisions on the criteria in the law. But we continue to see a pattern of USDA officials and National Organic Standards Board members acting to protect business interests rather than upholding the integrity of the organic label. Here are some examples from the most recent NOSB meeting:
Here are some examples from the most recent NOSB meeting
One of the major changes to the process for maintaining the National List happened in September 2013. Rather than require a vote on whether to re-list a material before its approval expires after five years, the USDA decided that the Board should vote on whether to remove a material from the National List. So in addition to requiring a supermajority (2/3 vote) to keep a material on the National List, a supermajority is now needed to take it off. We have strongly opposed this decision, as we argued that it gives more permanence to the National List than Congress intended. We experienced the effects of this new policy at the Fall 2014 NOSB meeting.
Aqueous potassium sulfate, used as a synthetic insecticide and for plant disease control, was up for sunset review. Nine board members voted to remove the material from the National List, and six voted to keep it on. Under the voting process as we believe Congress intended, it should have been voted off. But under the USDA revised policy for sunset votes, six Board members voting to keep it on the National List was enough to keep it on. So despite nine Board members opposing its continued use, this synthetic pesticide will remain allowed in organic farming. NOSB votes to keep exempt materials on the National List indefinitely Another material voted on at this meeting provides an even more striking example of the USDA and NOSB giving materials on the National List more permanence than we think they deserve.
The National List should provide for a temporary solution to allow for the use of essential materials, until a natural or organic alternative can be developed and commercialized. But at this meeting, the Board sent a clear message to the food industry that as long as any single food manufacturer is still using a material on the National List, regardless of whether organic alternatives exist, they will vote to keep that non-organic version on the National List. The particular food additive that was voted on is tragacanth gum, which is derived from a small shrub grown in the Middle East, specifically in Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Syria. Since the conventional version is on the National List, the crops from which these gums are derived are not managed organically, so there are no restrictions in terms of pesticide use. Since the crops are grown abroad, even basic US EPA restrictions or precautions for the use of toxic synthetic pesticides that conventional farmers in the US would need to follow, do not apply for gum tragacanth.
Even pesticides that are banned in the US could be used to produce gum tragacanth found in organic foods. How gum tragacanth even got on the National List is a different story. But what is worth noting is that the company that petitioned to add gum tragacanth to the National List wrote that it is “nearly identical, from growth, to harvest, to processing, to functionality,” to another type of gum. At the time, this other type of gum, gum arabic, was also not available in organic form. However, over the years, an organic gum arabic has been developed and commercialized. It seemed a no-brainer to us to remove gum tragacanth from the National List, especially since not a single organic food processor came forward during the two public comment periods in support of keeping it on the National List.
To make a long story short, a certifying agency stepped up at the meeting to lobby on behalf of a single client that uses it. That single food manufacturer then wrote a letter which the certifier distributed to the Board members — not to the public — on the final day of the three-day meeting. The Board then voted, 12 to 3, to keep conventional gum tragacanth, grown in the Middle East by non-organic farmers, on the National List and allowed in organic foods. Ancillary substances: The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 requires that all ingredients in certified organic foods must either be produced in accordance with the federal organic standards or must appear on the National List. Some materials on the National List contain ingredients, such as carriers, stabilizers and preservatives, that are not approved for use in organics. These “ancillary substances” should be reviewed and approved for use in organics.
The current proposal by the Handling Subcommittee, which reviewed “ancillary substances” for three materials on the National List, would approve any and all ancillary substances that currently in use. This includes formaldehyde (in yeast production as a defoaming agent), the preservatives BHA, BHT and sodium benzoate, and many others that we believe do not meet the criteria for use in organic foods. The NOSB should revisit its policy on “ancillary substances” and clarify that only single substances may appear on the National List, and ancillary substances must be organic or on the National List. What does it mean to be “essential?” At the meeting, we also urged the Board members to approve or re-approve exemptions for non-organic food ingredients only if they are essential. This is, after all, one of the clearest criteria in the organic law for meeting the threshold for approval.
We believe that the NOSB’s consideration of this restriction when voting on the National List is crucial for preserving the integrity of the organic label. But our pleas for ensuring that the essentiality criterion be met fell on deaf ears with the majority of the Board members. For example, a company petitioned for approval of a non-organic ingredient called “whole algal flour.” It is derived from micro algae grown in a fermentation medium, which is likely derived from corn and would not need to be organic or non-GMO. It is a new additive, and has never been affirmed as safe by the FDA. If voted onto the National List, organic food manufacturers could add this non-organic ingredient to replace organic cream and organic eggs in a long list of foods, including sauces, baked goods and salad dressings, for the sole purpose of reducing the total fat content. Is there an organic alternative to “whole algal flour?” Yes: organic cream and organic eggs, which contain beneficial fats if derived from grass-fed or pastured animals (which the organic regulations require).
If the National List is for essential materials that are compatible with organic principles, it should be a no-brainer to deny the petition. But the Board was swayed enough to table the petition and vote on it at the next meeting, in order to give the petitioner more time to supply information about the manufacturing process. Another example is gellan gum, a food additive derived from fermented bacteria, which was up for Sunset review. Board members in favor of re-approving it wrote that gellan gum is “essential for meeting consumer expectations of taste and texture.” Some in the industry also consider it essential because when added to liquids such as pineapple juice or chocolate milk, it prevents separation of the particles and means consumers don’t have to shake the product before consuming it.
We argued that these uses do not make this highly processed food additive “essential.” The Board voted 12 to 3 to keep it on the National List. Conclusion Organic standards take the vast majority of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and other animal drugs, synthetic processing aids and artificial ingredients out of organic farming and food. There are exceptions, but those exceptions are addressed in the law with strong restrictions. We believe those restrictions are critical to maintaining the integrity of the organic label, and should remain intact. Yet some argue that the organic industry can grow only when certain synthetic inputs used by conventional farmers, and many of the additives found in conventional foods, can be used by organic farmers and processors as well. We disagree. The restrictions in the law don’t hold back the growth of the industry; in fact, those restrictions are what give consumers confidence in the label and help the industry grow. Keeping those safeguards and protections intact is essential, and we will continue to pressure the USDA and the NOSB to preserve them.