Last week the USDA announced a change in the organic ingredients “sunset” policy — without any kind of public review. You see, before last week, if a company wanted to include a non-organic (synthetic) ingredient in certified organic foods, the ingredient had to apply for an exemption which would expire after five years unless it was re-exempted by a decisive, two-thirds majority vote of the National Organic Standards Board.
That is no longer the case.
Why even have exemptions?
While exemptions do seem counter-intuitive when you’re fighting for organic standards, the goal behind their creation was the growth of the organic food industry.
“The initial policy was part of continuous quality improvement,” says RAFI Just Foods Directory and NOSB founding chair Michael Sligh. “It was meant to send signals to the organic market and research communities to develop materials that were more compatible. This has always required a full board vote in public meetings with federal register notice and full public ‘sunshine.’”
So, if an organic food company couldn’t find a viable organic alternative to a synthetic one, they’d apply for an exemption for that synthetic ingredient.
The exemption was meant to serve as a notice to the organic market to point development and research in those directions. Five years seemed like a reasonable time for developing natural alternatives, and the sunset clause was created to ensure transparency so that exemptions never became routinely permanent.
How does the policy change affect exemptions?
It pretty much turned the old policy on its head.
Rather than requiring a two-thirds majority vote of the NOSB to retain an exemption, the new rules require two-thirds majority of the NOSB votes to remove the exemption.
In other words, exemptions will last indefinitely unless the review board decisively votes to remove the exempted item from the list.
In a joint statement written by the Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides and Center for Food Safety, the group wrote:
The USDA’s decision minimizes all incentives for creating organic, natural alternative ingredients and lowers the standard for what consumers can expect behind the organic label. Allowing the USDA to automatically relist materials without the recommendation of the NOSB erodes the Board’s legal authority over materials decisions, a key to consumer trust in the organic label. The fact that the agency made this decision without any public input only adds to the violation felt by watchdog groups and consumers alike.
Is this really such an outrage?
I think so.
It used to be that the National Organic Standards Board had final say.
The NOSB was empowered as the final decision-maker on what could be included in the national list of approved materials. The USDA Secretary could remove a material if proven to be harmful, but not add to the list. This recent decision overhauls that policy and would allow for a substance to be added by USDA without NOSB approval or public comment.
The NOSB was created to ensure that all voices were at the table — from small-scale rural farmers to consumers. It was intended to be the fair, transparent, and public sounding board for organic interests and was given this final authority to ensure accountability to the public.
With its new policy, the USDA has gutted the NOSB’s authority, essentially cutting the public out of the organic standards equation unless we rally a super-majority two-thirds vote by the NOSB.
While I hope this won’t mean a further watering down of USDA Organic standards, I honestly think that it will. It is inevitable unless we can mount a campaign that gets the USDA to reverse this decision.
Such a campaign is in the works, being organized by the Consumers Union and other interested groups. So, stay tuned!