Insights by Goldie
As organic grows, let's keep it organic!

Sound Consumer | June 2004

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Last month I attended the semi-annual National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in Chicago, followed by the "All Things Organic" trade show of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the largest organic trade event ever held in the United States.

This was the first time the OTA show was presented concurrently with three large mainstream food industry groups — the Food Marketing Institute, Produce Marketing Association, and Fancy Foods Association. Sign of the times? Read on and judge for yourself.

The OTA released a report that domestic sales of organic foods exceeded $10.38 billion last year, a 20.4 percent increase over 2002. The growth trend since 1997 has been a consistent 17 to 21 percent annual growth in organic sales.

The $10.38 billion in U.S. organic food sales in 2003, although impressive, was only about two percent of total food sales. But the sustained strong sales growth, evidencing growing consumer confidence and demand, is a fact not lost on mainstream food producers. Non-organic food sales have shrunk over the last year or so by about the same percentage that organic sales have grown. No wonder the OTA was invited to play with the big guys in Chicago this year.

The organic industry's growth is especially impressive considering the National Organic Standards were implemented just two years ago, in October 2002. Existence of USDA-regulated standards — and the desire for reaping profits from the organic "niche" — have driven multi-nationals to gobble up organic companies: Heinz owns Hains Foods, Celestial Seasonings, Walnut Acres and several others; Kraft/Philip Morris owns Boca Burger; General Mills owns Cascadian Farms; M & M Mars owns Seeds of Change; Coca Cola owns Odwalla, and that's just to name a few.

Going organic
The switch is a big step for growers and manufacturers alike, with a steep learning curve for some. It means unlearning many practices and comprehending what substances are and are not allowed. Historically, learning to grow or process foods organically has meant being patient, committed, innovative and taking "the long view" toward business development. Most producers, until quite recently, started small and learned not only the rules, but the "heart and soul" of going organic.

Organic farmers must develop and follow a detailed "farm plan." For manufacturers, it's a "processing and handling plan." Any variance must have prior approval of the certifier. If a material is deemed necessary for use in producing a crop or livestock (or needed by a processor or manufacturer), and isn't on the organic program's national list of approved synthetic or prohibited natural materials, then a petition process can trigger a review of the material.

The NOSB has the federal statutory authority for final approval or prohibition of all materials. The criteria used in its decision-making process are thorough and transparent, all published online at the national organic program Web site at www.ams.usda.gov/nop. All petitions, scientific technical reports, reviews by professional panels, and public comments submitted on each material also are made available prior to the decision, at the NOSB's location online, at www.ams.usda.gov/nosb/.

All NOSB deliberations and decisions are made in public in scheduled NOSB meetings where the petitioner and public can be present and give further input and comments. These safeguards have contributed to earning the standards a high degree of confidence.

Consumer and industry confidence in government, however, is a fragile thing. It must be earned and never taken for granted. Like a garden, the integrity of the standards must be tended and monitored.

Caretaking of the standards is encompassed in the oversight role of the NOSB, but the board's official role is only "advisory." The one very important exception, noted earlier, is that the U.S. Congress specifically granted the NOSB the statutory authority over materials decisions. This seems to have become a major sticking point with the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) managers, who increasingly have begun to challenge NOSB authority. On occasions, the NOP management has bypassed the NOSB and allowed use of certain materials, without consultation or review by the NOSB.

In the past four years I've witnessed several instances of rude and demeaning remarks made by the NOP program management to certain board members, in publicly recorded sessions. This has created a tense atmosphere. Nevertheless, the NOSB has been determined to continue a concerted effort to work with the NOP staff in a cordial, cooperative and professional manner and has continued doing the time-consuming work of the NOSB. Board members, incidentally, are unpaid.

In April, a flurry of "guidance statements" (also called "directives," although the legal effect of either term remains unclarified and unexplained) were posted on the NOP Web site, signed by the NOP program manager. [These documents are no longer available. Read the original directives (links on the right). See also update above.]

Industry and consumer watchdog organizations are expressing confusion, concern and anger over these actions and developments. They express fear that the NOP's actions will weaken standards and consumer confidence, and cause massive disruption and economic harm within the organic industry just as it's showing great strength. As a member of the NOSB, I urge you to become informed on the issues and comment to the NOP and/or to me.


For details and perspective, see:

Contact Info:

  • www.ams.usda.gov/nop
    Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman
    E-mail: agsec@usda.gov

    Or mail: The Honorable Ann Veneman
    Secretary U.S. Department of Agriculture
    1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
    Washington, D.C. 20250
     
  • National Organic Program Manager, Richard Mathews
    E-mail: Richard.Mathews@usda.gov

    Mail: Richard Mathews, Program Manager
    USDA-AMS-TMP-NOP
    Room 4008 South Building
    1400 Independence Avenue, SW
    Washington, DC 20250-0020

    Or fax: 202-205-7808

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