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Saving organic standards

USDA Organic Seal

Are they really under "sneak attack?"

by Trudy Bialic, Director of Public Affairs
PCC Natural Markets

(October 2005) — Confusing and emotionally charged statements have been widely disseminated on the Internet. They concern what some members of the organic community describe as a "sneak attack" to "weaken organic standards."

Our former staff Nutrition Educator, Goldie Caughlan, served as a consumer representative on the National Organic Standards Board (from 2001 to January 2006). She assisted us in understanding the issues and their implications to consumers. We have discussed consumer concerns and their trust of the organic standards and the organic labels, as well as the perspectives of organic manufacturers and other producers and handlers.

This is a divisive issue within the organic community. The conflict is the result of a lawsuit (the so-called Harvey lawsuit — see sidebar on right). Different people are interpreting a federal court ruling on the lawsuit differently, but all, we believe, are equally committed to keeping organic standards as strong or stronger than they have been. See Organic Trade Association's Just the Facts. Questions and Answers about Restoring the Organic Regulations.

When the court issued its ruling on the Harvey lawsuit in June, the choice for stakeholders was 1) to embrace it completely and accept some dramatic changes it demanded — for instance, that synthetics approved by the National Organic Standards Board, such as pectin, ascorbic acid and citric acid, would no longer be allowed in processing organic foods (although some approved synthetics would continue to be allowed in crop and livestock production), or, 2) return to the U.S. Congress and seek to have the original Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) amended to bring it in line with the organic practices and standards established by a long-term public process since 1990, guided by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The Organic Trade Association (OTA) voted unanimously to choose the latter route.

Different interpretations, common goals

It appears to us at PCC Natural Markets that OTA's move to propose and support a "rider" amendment to OFPA was reasonably based and that the specific changes appear to be wholly consistent with the continuation of strong national organic standards. PCC arrived at our decision to support the OTA position, after considering the specific language and the stated rationale (see OTA's Web site Saving the Standards We All Worked So Hard To Get).

Generally speaking we do not like rider amendments. Frequently they are stealth maneuvers made to affect legislation that might not stand if scrutinized fairly and objectively. Rider amendments are questionable because they are undemocratic in their manner.

The National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), of which PCC also is a member, is on record as opposed to the amendment. The NCGA is not alone in its perspective; it is joined by the Consumers Union and Organic Consumers Association (OCA). The OCA, in our opinion, has inaccurately represented the goals and aims of OTA's proposal, as well as the impact the proposed amendment would have on organic standards (see

A close reading, however, of OTA's proposal and the OCA's position reveals that they are in agreement: 1) that some synthetics are necessary for processing but 2) that any synthetics should be carefully reviewed and approved by the NOSB, 3) that the NOSB must retain ultimate oversight authority over regulations, and 4) that no new powers or authorities should be granted to USDA managers or political appointees.

It is the position of PCC Natural Markets that the amendment presented by OTA to restore OFPA to pre-Harvey status does not weaken organic standards. It does not remove from the NOSB any oversight authority it currently has. It does not give the USDA any powers or authority it does not currently have. (See Restoring the National Organic Program, Organic Trade Association.)

Perspective on process

Many citizens (perhaps understandably) have a mistrust of USDA and other large regulatory agencies. They find the use of rider amendments inherently distasteful, which we understand, and sense that any organization using this means of rule making is not to be trusted. There also is an increasing underlying suspicion among organic consumers that "big organic" is somehow trying to "weaken" the standards in general, and especially by this rider proposal.

There is much inflammatory language circulating on the Internet characterizing the OTA's decision and process in going to Capitol Hill as reflecting a takeover of OTA by big corporate interests. The fact is that virtually 50 percent of the OTA's members generate $50,000 or less in annual sales (see PCC Natural Markets, with $89 million in sales last year, is among the very top few percent, but as a certified organic, consumer-owned cooperative, we certainly do not represent agribusiness.

Hand holding seed

PCC also wishes to note that the OTA invited any and all of its 1,500 members to participate in a series of conference calls to help decide the course of action after the court ruling. The OTA membership includes manufacturers, retailers, growers/farmers, ingredient suppliers, distributors, the personal care sector, farm suppliers and certifiers.

Even the farmer Harvey, who filed the lawsuit, is a member and he participated. More than one PCC staff member participated in these conference calls, providing the perspective of a consumer-owned retailer. There also were multiple opportunities for member stakeholders to participate in face-to-face meetings at Expo West (March), All Things Organic (May), and at Expo East (September).

It is also important to point out that while the OTA's amendment route has been characterized negatively in a variety of terms, some prominent critics of OTA reportedly also drafted and circulated their own proposed legislative amendments to OFPA on Capitol Hill.

It is PCC's view that the OTA-backed amendment would not give political appointees or others not on the NOSB the authority to add synthetic ingredients to organic production methods. The amendment does not give any administrative appointee any powers that he/she does not have now. And, it does not suddenly make way for synthetic ingredients.


While it seems only natural to reject the idea of any and all synthetics in organic production, the fact is that a small number of them — approved after careful review by the NOSB — have been allowed for lack of any organic version or substitute.

The current NOSB board, as well as all previous boards, have for many years reviewed and approved various synthetic materials petitioned by farmers, manufacturers and others for use in growing or processing. Synthetics appearing on the "National List" of NOSB-approved synthetics (see OTA's "National List Backgrounder") and disallowed natural substances automatically must be reconsidered under what's called a sunset review every five years or less.

The intent of the sunset review is that, as organic producers continue to improve organic practices and as research improves processing, natural substances hopefully could replace synthetics. The sunset review drives the research. The first part of the sunset reviews was taken up at the November 2005 NOSB meeting. It must be completed by October 21, 2006.

The crux of the debate over synthetics has to do with the court's interpretation in January 2005 that OFPA, as currently worded, intends for foods labeled "Organic" and bearing the organic seal (95 percent organic or more) to not contain any synthetic materials. Only products labeled "Made with organic ingredients" (70 percent minimum organic ingredients), without the organic seal, can use approved synthetics. (See Backgrounder — box below)

This is a change and surely diminishes the appeal of many thousands of products to consumers. It eliminates incentive for producers to use any more than 70 percent organic ingredients. It also leaves a loophole or void for up to 30 percent non-organically grown ingredients, which could include toxic pesticides, etc. This would not serve consumers well and it reduces organic markets for farmers and other providers. (See Harvey v. Veneman and its impact on the organic supply chain, Organic Trade Assocation.)

It means that organically grown bananas could no longer be labeled with the organic seal, nor could organically grown, bagged lettuce. The reasons? Ethylene gas, one of the NOSB-approved synthetics, is used to help ripen organically grown bananas after long-distance transport. A very mild chlorine rinse is used to help keep organically bagged lettuce safe for consumers.

It must be noted that every other organic standard in the world (such as IFOAM, EU, CODEX and JAS) all allow the limited use of a few approved synthetic substances. Here in the U.S., there are 38 such synthetics, carefully reviewed and approved by the NOSB. Clearly, on one side of the debate these days is the view that the Harvey court ruling is a welcome opportunity to change the status quo. This would, however, represent a total departure and change from the 13-year process of the setting of USDA organic standards.

Harvey's impact on dairy

Another divisive ruling in the Harvey case included an end to what is termed the "one time only, whole herd exemption" for dairy cows. It changed a regulation passed years ago in response to consumers wanting to support organic dairy and to assist mostly small-scale farmers who felt they needed help in transitioning dairy herds to organic.

The pre-Harvey regulation allowed a farm to convert a whole dairy herd from conventional to organic within one year by feeding 80 percent organic and 20 percent non-organic feed, rather than the usual requirement of 100 percent organic called for in the regulations. Small family-scale dairy producers especially say they now feel economically disadvantaged by the court's reversal and many consumers agree, while many others believe the exemption never should have been granted originally. (See Dairy rules — sidebar on right)

A community view

The bottom line, for all of us in the organic community, is that more than a decade of NOSB work has been challenged by one individual, and one judge has ruled against much of what the NOSB has worked on all these years and upon which organic producers have had input and commented and ultimately relied. It is not unreasonable that the industry's trade association is attempting to rectify the situation for members.

This is a difficult and complex debate. Trust will need to be re-built regarding organic standards — however the issue is resolved. We know that if you are reading this you care about the organic and sustainable agricultural community. We all, truly, are on the same side as participants in the organic community.

The strong organic standards we have been operating under have served all of us in this community well and have provided a framework and incentive for the growth of organics across all sectors. We want you to know that we support the amendment that now has passed and do not see anything in it that weakens organic standards.

Related Content

Analysis from the Congressional Research Service

An independent review from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) ( documents/Nov8CRSReport.pdf) has concluded that an amendment to the Organic Foods Production Act will do little more than block the effect of a 2005 court ruling in Harvey v. Veneman.

The CRS is the public policy research arm of the U.S. Congress. As a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, it works exclusively and directly for members of Congress, their committees and staff on a confidential, nonpartisan basis.

Congress created CRS in order to have its own source of nonpartisan, objective analysis and research on all legislative issues.