PCC Sound Consumer | Changes at the NOSB

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Insights by Goldie
Changes at the NOSB

Sound Consumer | October 2005

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

It’s hard to believe that nearly five years have passed since I was appointed in December 2000 by then-USDA Secretary Daniel Glickman to serve as a consumer representative on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). In November, I will attend my last official board meeting. My five-year term will be done.

Five of us who were appointed at the same time will be “off duty” at the January meeting. We won’t vote, but we’ll be expected to attend and assist in the orientation for new members. That’s always important, but especially because circumstances have resulted in a very high turnover rate on the board.

This past spring, five members retired and five new appointees replaced them. Come January, not only will five more of us be replaced but a sixth member will be appointed, filling a vacancy created by a resignation. That means 11 of the 15 members will be new — more than two-thirds — within one year.

For any decision-making body to experience such turnover is challenging and cause for concern, but especially for the NOSB because it will face very difficult issues in the coming year. To start, between November 2005 and October 2007 every material appearing on the “National List” of NOSB-approved synthetics and disallowed natural substances must be reconsidered under what’s called a sunset review.

There are more than 35 synthetics on the National List, including minor ingredients such as pectin and citric acid. 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 review will be taken up at our November meeting for two full days with no other business.

The new board will have to decide what the standards will be for sectors not yet covered. These include apiculture (honey), pet food, farmed aquatic species and possibly wild aquatic species, too.

The new board also will address whether or how to develop standards for personal care items and food supplements (issues that are not going away, no matter how much the USDA wishes them to). Standards for greenhouses or hydroponics probably need to be considered, too.

The Harvey lawsuit
Other issues facing the incoming board result from a court ruling this past July and will affect the future role and functioning of the NOSB. Arthur Harvey, an organic farmer from Maine, had sued the USDA and the administrators of the National Organic Program (NOP) soon after the national organic standards were launched in 2002. Harvey challenged many aspects of the standards on grounds that the USDA/NOP exceeded its regulatory authority and controverted the language and intent of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. A federal court ruled in his favor on several points.

The judge ordered the USDA/NOP to rewrite large sections of the organic regulations to comply with the ruling within 18 months. Eighteen months is then allowed to permit organic producers time to change labels, reformulate or do whatever is necessary to comply.

Yet the ruling that has caused the most confusion and heartburn in the organic industry is that foods labeled “Organic” (or “100% Organic”) may not contain any synthetic materials, including minor synthetic ingredients such as pectin or citric acid. Only products labeled “Made with organic ingredients” may continue to use NOSB- approved synthetics.

We on the current board, as well as all previous boards, have for years reviewed many, and approved some, synthetic materials petitioned by manufacturers and others for use in growing or processing.

The NOSB minutes from early board meetings, dating from the first board in the 1990s, shows the NOSB early on had not been totally clear of its legal boundaries on the use of synthetic processing agents. It sought legal advice from the USDA and eventually was informed that synthetics could be designated by NOSB for use where the NOSB deemed them safe and appropriate. The court’s July 2005 ruling reversed many years of proceeding on that legal advice and affects nearly all manufacturers of processed foods labeled organic.

Harvey lawsuit impacts farmers
Other divisive rulings in the Harvey case include an end to what is termed the “one time only, whole herd exemption.” It was a regulation passed years ago in response to consumers wanting organic dairy and to small-scale farmers who felt they needed help in transitioning to organic. The rule allowed a farm to convert one 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 feel economically disadvantaged now by the July reversal and many consumers agree, while I’m sure many others believe the exemption never should have been granted originally. Various groups have tried to forestall the loss of this whole herd exemption via petition to the USDA, stating that it’s within the scope of the USDA’s authority. Since the NOSB/USDA was so firmly “slapped” by the court in the Harvey case, I doubt this perspective will be persuasive.

The next NOSB
Some of the most experienced and qualified members are leaving the board. Topping the list in my judgment is the current chair, James Riddle, an organic inspection and certification specialist with more than two decades of national and international experience and leadership. Also leaving is Rosalie Koenig, a Ph.D. biologist and active fruit and vegetable farmer. Rosie’s astounding combined skills and experience helped guide (and professionalize) the USDA/NOP’s process for obtaining expert technical evaluations and established an improved means of reviewing materials.

The ineffable George Siemon, organic pioneer and founder of Organic Valley dairy and Organic Prairie meat and eggs, will be stepping down. George’s dedication to protecting the livelihoods of hundreds of organic family farmers he has worked with has been instructive, inspiring and valuable to board members.

The board also is losing Dave Carter, who for twenty years headed the National Farmers Union, and has a background in negotiation and mediation, and ability to work effectively with state and federal agencies and legislatures.

Dave’s calm and good-humored leadership skills as a chair enabled the board to continue working with the USDA’s former manager of the National Organic Program. That individual’s outbursts of verbal abuse of NOSB caused one member to resign in disgust and others threaten to leave. Dave’s grace under fire pulled us through. He also quietly mentored a successor who also could deflect the hostilities. Thankfully, a new NOP manager is now in office.

The new members who joined the board this year, as well as the very sharp and hard-working continuing members, give the board a solid base. I know some of the applicants seeking appointment, and they would be excellent additions. So I’m very hopeful that we’ll see good, principled appointees with lots of experience, dedicated to keeping organic standards strong while seeking creative solutions to thorny issues.

The new board will face the usual challenges of learning how to work together, how to interface and communicate with the USDA and federal processes, how to advocate the needs of farmers, manufacturers, consumers and retailers, all while staying abreast of environmental and scientific issues and avoiding undue political pressures. I wish them well!

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