USDA Guts Organic Standards


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!

What do you think?


  1. Anna says

    Ugh. Not that I’m surprised, the USDA has proven over and over again that public health fell off the bottom of its priority list years ago. Is there ANYTHING they won’t sell out on?

  2. Will Traurig says

    This is definitely not a positive move towards real organic purity. The board still has the final say but it does make it tougher to rally the needed numbers to remove an ingredient that would have been automatically kicked.

  3. says

    More and more it is evident that we should NEVER rely on the government to do what is right for our health. We must not get complacent, lazy or ignorant about what is in our food. It’s a shame. Why can’t it be simple?

  4. Terri says

    Please do keep us apprised of any petitions or campaigns to get this changed! I agree that this will lead to pollution of what all of us believe organic should be!

  5. Amaltais says

    This is such awful news and so disappointing! Please keep us up to date on the campaign to reverse the decision. The last thing we need is a further watering down of the Organic or non-GMO standard!! It seems just too suspicious that the FDA went ahead and did this without going through the proper process. I trust them less and less everyday to look after my and my family’s needs and welfare. :(

  6. Sharon says

    “USDA organic” was somewhat “watered down” from the get-go, so outrage is not new. This article, while very informative and much needed, gives me yet another reason to buy ONLY raw local food. If you personally know the farmer, his/hers values and way of living, it gives you reason to trust food coming from that place. There is no reason to eat food that being delivered across the country or from other countries, there is no need to have food out of season in your area. There is nothing good about packaged food, organic or not.If humanity survived without packaged and foreign food for thousands of years , so can I and anyone who is interested.

  7. Marchauna says

    Looks like one more reason to buy local, preferably from farmers you know and trust. And to get back to basics by making your own. When the fox is guarding the hen house, we all lose.

  8. says

    This is truly scary, although probably not all that surprising. The more the public demands a right for organic, real food, the more we see the desperation.

  9. Bill O'Konski says

    It seems these bastards keep selling out the consumer every chance they get.. What can we do? What power do we have? I sign and sign all these damn petitions, but it seems useless!! If corporations get their way, and the trusted Certified Organic seal means virtually nothing but that we will pay more for the product, what purpose does it serve except in aiding corporations to increase profits while screwing consumers.. I am getting ready to move to Europe!!!

  10. Barbara says

    What is needed is a comprehensive list of companies that truly adhere to strict organic standards…and a boycott of those companies that push the limits. And obviously buying local raw foods from reputable farmers/producers.

  11. Jill says

    This link might shed a little bit of light at the end of the dark tunnel of the USDA: I am hoping that these types of non-government certifying organizations will replace the corrupt USDA and their weakening organic standards. From their site:

    “Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) is a non-profit organization offering certification tailored for small-scale, direct-market farmers and beekeepers using natural methods.

    CNG was born of a commitment to healthy food and healthy soils, and grew out of the belief that we could create something uniquely valuable to small farmers and the communities they feed. CNG was founded when the National Organic Program (NOP) took effect in 2002.

    Our certification model encourages collaboration, transparency, and community involvement. Our programs are based on the highest ideals of organic farming, and the requirements are reasonable. Many farmers find the peer-review inspection process a valuable learning experience.

    CNG farms don’t use any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or GMO seeds, just like organic farms. Certified Naturally Grown is an independent program not affiliated with the NOP.

    CNG is nationally recognized and endorsed, and it thrives because of enormous volunteer efforts and the commitment of the people who participate. Please join the farmers and beekeepers at the heart of the movement!”

  12. says

    Kristin, this is terrifying for those of us with auto-inflammatory conditions who depend on organic foods being organic to regulate our diets and prevent potentially catastophic inflammatory responses. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

    I have Crohn’s Disease. I haven’t had a major flare in over 13 years, thanks in large part to repopulating my gut flora with huge doses of probiotics. My success would not have been possible without stringent adherence to a strictly organic diet. Eating GMO veggies wipes out my flora and I have to start over with the probiotics. (See also: shikimate pathway)

    Since Crohn’s has potentially life threatening complications, I do not take this news lightly. Letting organic standards slip could mean life or death for those of us who are dependent on clean eating to maintain health in immune compromised bodies.

    How can I make a big, huge deal out of this to the political players who matter?

  13. says

    And while, yes, it would be ideal to know your farmers and make all your own food, that’s simply not a realistic lifestyle choice for most people. You can make all the concessions you want but the reality is that sometimes I need to take clients to lunch somewhere. Organic grass-fed meats and organic salad are pretty readily available in at least one restaurant in a majority of the largest cities in the U.S. If organic becomes meaningless and I can’t eat out without having some serious health repurcussion it could seriously hurt my business as well as my health. What the #%^* is the point of having organic standards or a regulating body that doesn’t protect the interests of ALL the people, especially the weakest among us?

  14. Carol Guenzel says

    This is why it is becoming more important to make your own foods and buy from a trusted, local source. There is nothing out there in boxes that you cannot make yourself.

  15. Carol Guenzel says

    We knew this was coming. It has becoming increasingly important to make your own food and grow or buy your own ingredients. There is nothing in a box that cannot be home made better and cleaner.

  16. tim says

    would it be possible for the NOSB to create a ‘NOSB certified organic’ label?
    also could the NOSB get a 2/3rds majority vote to eliminate the USDA from all further discussion on organics? obviously, the USDA has been compromised by some deep pockets

  17. David lazauski says

    This all started when big Ag suddenly realized that organic food had become a 3 billion + dollar industry. Large companies bought up all the organic produces they could lay hands on, then immediately began lobbying for changes in the definition of ‘Organic”, and as soon as they had control of most of the movement, started this exemption programme which will not stop until the definition of ‘Organic’ is as meaningless as the term ‘Natural”. Say good-bye to ‘Organic’ and go local or grow it yourself.

    • Grynae says

      Amen.. Seriously drives me up a wall when people tell me “oh it’s okay, it’s all natural.” Yea thanks you can keep that ‘all natural’ $@*# to yourself. It makes me sad that organic is going in the same grave.

  18. Jen says

    I get the feeling that most people have NO IDEA that organic certified produce is allowed to be sprayed with growth hormones and has been for decades… My dad knows the guy who got the government to allow it. It’s pretty ridiculous. Plus, there’s a whole lot of suspiciously large organic produce in the grocery store. You can even see it on the grape bunches sometimes — there will be some small, normal-sized grapes hidden under the giant ones. Those are the grapes who got missed by the spray. And then people try to act like organic is a magical standard for pure, clean food? No way.

    Plus, I can guarantee you that there are organic certified farmers who are ruining their soil with improper nutrition. Organic =/= good farming. There is no substitute for knowing your farmer. None.

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