The Pulse of Natural Health Newsletter

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USDA Power Play Threatens the Future of Organic Foods

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Last week saw an inter-agency power grab. It begins with the weakening of organic standards—and could end with the term “organic” becoming practically meaningless. Action Alert!

In September, the USDA announced changes to its interpretation of the “sunset” provision in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), an incredibly important piece of legislation that Congress passed into law in 1990. These changes override the powers of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and make it easier for food producers to use synthetics in organic food production.

The “Sunset” Controversy

Previously, any exemptions from organic standards were set to expire, or “sunset,” on a specific date—unless they were reinstated by a “decisive” two-thirds majority vote of the NOSB. Now it’s just the reverse: a synthetic material can be permitted to remain in an organic food indefinitely unless a two-thirds majority votes to remove it from the exempted list.

Thousands of consumer advocates and environmentalists spoke out against this power grab by the USDA—one that satisfies only the vested interests of large-scale producers trying to increase their profits with an “organic” stamp. ANH-USA was there at the meeting so we could speak out on behalf of consumers and voice our concern about the continuing dilution of organic standards.

The board received a tremendous number of comments about the new sunset process, including these:

  • The National Organic Coalition called it a significant reinterpretation of the law, one that redefines the word “sunset” to mean exactly its opposite. The entire concept is now nonsensical, and clearly runs contrary to the intent of the original legislation: “sunset” means that the exemptions “come off,” not “stay on.”
  • The Cornucopia Institute said the NOSB is being stripped of its authority so that the USDA can set its own agenda—a naked power grab.  Cornucopia is looking at legal action over this change in terminology.
  • Consumer Reports says the National Organic Program is becoming less and less discriminatory about sunsets, and doesn’t align with what the law requires, creating a huge gap between what is marketed as organic and what the consumer expects organic to be.

Why the New Sunset Rule Is Dangerous

The shift in power was on clear display at last week’s NOSB meeting when board members voted to allow the continued use of gellan gum, tragacanth gum, sulfurous acid, sodium carbonate peroxyhydrate, and aqueous potassium silicate in organic production. Allowing these synthetic substances in organic production is a clear victory for producers who want to be considered organic without sacrificing their bottom line.

For example, large organic dairy producers such as Stonyfield Organic, Organic Valley, White Wave, and Horizon Organic say gellan gum—a thickening agent—is needed to stop the chocolate flavoring from separating from the milk while the carton sits in grocery stores. Consumer advocate and organic watchdog groups argued that the ingredient simply isn’t necessary and that such synthetic materials should never be allowed in foods that are certified as organic. Board members who advocated removing these items were voted down because of the new interpretation of the “sunset” rule.

At issue is the board’s composition, which has been infiltrated by corporate interests. The make-up of the fifteen-member board is clearly defined by statute, but an executive from Driscoll’s now sits in a seat that should belong to a farmer/grower. Another seat is held by an individual who, when appointed, worked for the country’s largest organic marketing cooperative, CROPP ($928 million in annual revenue).

“We have two members of the current board, both sitting in seats that Congress had designated for someone who must ‘own or operate an organic farming operation’ but who were actually agribusiness employees when appointed to the five-year term on the NOSB,” said Mark A. Kastel, co-director and senior farm policy analyst at Cornucopia.

The voting records of these two agribusiness employees are significantly lower than those of the actual farmer members of the NOSB. In all, of the board’s fifteen members, six are a pro-corporate business voting block, and several others often vote with them. In other words, what we are seeing is a clear case of collusion between USDA and agribusiness.

Other Issues at the Meeting

The NOSB has also decided to rewrite the terminology for what are called Excluded Methods—language that encompasses all genetic engineering, and details what must be excluded from organic production. Will the new approach to GMO detection be a process-based approach, meaning if any GMO ingredient is used in the manufacturing process, the food is considered GMO, even if the GMO proteins are no longer detectable? Or will it be a product-based one, meaning that it is only considered GMO if proteins are detectable in the final product, regardless of what went into the manufacturing process? Organic consumers and environmentalists support a process-based approach as the more rigorous standard.

This will be an ongoing effort for the NOSB. At the meeting, we encouraged the board to remain open and transparent during this process and to seek public comment. We urged the board to stand up for its authority and fight this slippery slope into synthetic foods being passed off as organic. Laws allowing synthetic ingredients in organic food production should be construed in the narrowest possible sense, and any exemptions should not be made merely to make organic certification easier to attain for the largest commercial enterprises.

Also at this meeting, the NOSB began to tackle the question of genetically engineered vaccines in organic livestock production, which consumer advocates have been decrying for years. The board said it needs to create a list of the vaccines that contain GM components, but complained that this is a daunting and time-consuming task, and stated that the identification of GM vaccines may have to wait until after the new Excluded Methods definition has been established.

ANH-USA encourages the NOSB to act on GM vaccines in a timely manner and not turn the issue over to the USDA, who has shown a bias in favor of producers and has a clear conflict of interest with their support of biotechnology.

Action Alert! Tell the USDA to use a public and transparent process for all major changes to organic standards by publishing proposed changes in the Federal Register, and actively seeking public input and discussion. In addition, tell the USDA to enforce the sunset provision of the OFPA as it was originally intended—allowing synthetic products to remain after their “sunset” date only after public debate and a two-thirds vote of the NOSB. More than 100 synthetics will be up for sunset consideration in 2015. We must act now to protect the integrity of organics. Send your message today!

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  • Pam & Jim Lodwick

    Stop the crony corruption. Thanks much.

  • Cori Fukuchi

    The integrity of orgaqnics must be protected. The word “organic,” still means something. It needs to continue to stand for quality.

  • Gloria Clements

    Those of us who care enough about our planet and our health to buy Certified Organic foods need to know that strong regulations are in place and being enforced to make the term “Certified Organic” mean something. Among other considerations, we hear a lot about “containing health care costs”. We can never hope to have fewer medical problems unless we remove the cause of many of them. Each year more synthetic food ingredients are proven to cause health issues. It is essential that those of us who want to live healthier lives and provide that benefit to our children be assured of being able to purchase food free from synthetic ingredients.

  • This is why I’ve never trusted the USDA organic label and don’t particularly want mandatory labels. The government simply cannot be trusted to put consumers ahead of corporations.

    I do look for independent non-GMO certification and try to know my local organic farmers. But the fact that some corporation paid a government fee and passed a government inspection is meaningless to me, as they might never be inspected again and would be free to do whatever they wished.

    We have only to look at pharmaceuticals to see how our system works. The government approves a drug and it is widely prescribed until several thousand people become gravely ill or die from its side effects. During that time the corporation that manufactured the drug is likely to be spending a fortune to defend itself against lawsuits, despite having known the dangers of the drug before it was released. Personally, I much prefer the precautionary principle, and I assume that new and unknown products are unsafe until proven otherwise.

    The same thing has happened with tainted products that have an organic label–the product is recalled after people become ill, not before, so the label guarantees nothing, really.

    Due to the higher retail price of products with organic and non-GMO labels, corporations can be expected to circumvent laws in any way they can, and the government is not apt to investigate or prosecute the corporations that fund their elections to the tune of billions of dollars. Since all consumers have is a vote that the Supreme Court said doesn’t even have to be counted, and with computers counting the ballots cannot effectively be verified, your vote for non-GMO labels, simply authorizes the government to continue to wage wars based on lies and sell meaningless labels. I find it strange that so many people trust a government that, going by the extent of surveillance, doesn’t trust us at all.

    To support organics, support your local organic farmers and associations of independent organic certifiers. If you leave it up to the government, you’ll find that they don’t really care–they’re as apathetic as the people who vote for them.

  • William Heiland

    It is very simple, if all the ingredients in the product do not appear in nature naturally the product is not organic!!!!!

  • Shanta Kamath

    Dear USDA Officials,

    Please use a public and transparent process for all major changes to organic standards by publishing proposed changes in the Federal Register, and by actively seeking public input and discussion. Please enforce the sunset provision of the OFPA as it was originally intended—allowing synthetic products to remain after their “sunset” date only after public debate and a two-thirds vote of the NOSB. More than 100 synthetics will be up for sunset consideration in 2015. Please protect the integrity of organics. It would be a terrible and unforgivable abuse of your power to undermine the intent of the organic standards. Many people have worked hard, invested and sacrificed in order to grow, produce and consume these foods because it is important to us. It would be a huge mistake on your part to underestimate the importance of this, and I assure you that you would come to regret it as the valid and important reasons behind the standards become clearer to everyone. Be part of the solution instead.

  • Sue Stoudemire

    The USDA works for WE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. DO YOUR JOB. WE WNAT “ORGQNIC” TO MEAN “ORGANIC!”

    The USDA must use a public, transparent process for all major changes to organic standards by publishing proposed changes in the Federal Register and by actively seeking public input and discussion.

    The USDA must enforce the sunset provision of the OFPA as it was originally intended—allowing synthetic products to remain after their “sunset” date ONLY AFTER PUBLIC DEBATE & A 2/3 MAJORITY OF THE NOSB.

    WE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE WANT YOU TO PROTECT THE INTEGRITY OF ORGANICS!

    DO YOUR JOB.

  • Greg Gregg

    The USDA and the FDA are nothing more than puppets that kneel before their masters to perform favors for a few dollars…
    Their masters are the chemical companies that could care less if they are poisoning children as long as there is a huge profit margin…
    How much does the USDA and the FDA get for a child???

  • Whenever I click “take action” I see the petition for a second and then it throws me off. Can you fix that?

  • Helen Gex Greer

    Don’t fight our right to know what’s in the products we guy. Especially food.

  • Martha Ray

    The USDA should leave the organic standards as they exist now. If we can’t trust the USDA to protect our organic products, we will just have to start growing our own food. The USDA needs to be transparent and publish proposed changes widely and esp. in the Federal Register and to ask for public discussion. I have a daughter who has an extremely sensitive digestive system, and she must be able to trust the food she eats and know what it contains.

  • Robert Cruder

    The tomato is marketed as a vegetable in spite of botany. No consumer was confused or harmed.

    Highly refined petroleum oil was marketed as synthetic oil even though competition was derived from other feed stocks at greater cost. High-volume brands switched to the lower-cost source (called Group III) while true synthetics (called Group IV) remained available at a higher price. The differences were public. No one is now confused or harmed.

    The catholic church defined the capybara as fish so that members in South America could eat them on Friday. The political decision neither helped nor harmed the consumer.

    This dispute is somewhere between the second and the third.

    Absent some medically-proven benefit, “organic” is a philosophical/religious policy. Absent a tradition (such as Kosher) the standard is political. Like “synthetic”, consumers can buy compromised “organic” at a lower price or pay more for the older definition.

    The big difference is that there are measurable performance differences between Group III and Group IV oil and fraud would be detected. Lacking any measurable performance difference between organic and non-organic it is unlikely that a compromised organic would be detected.

    The lesson would be to choose by more than a word on a label?

    • Franimal

      “Innocent until proven guilty” should only apply to humans within the legal system, not to organisms which remain untested by third-party agencies and are unknown in their effects on human life. GMOs have been given a scientific pass by some media and the law, but until they are tested and proven safe for human consumption over the long term,-by the SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY- people should be allowed the freedom to decide what they put into their bodies, based on the most accurate information available. Information is a necessary component of the decision-making process, and the more accurate the information (neutral, critical, disinterested investigation yields good information. Corporately-funded studies do not), the better the decisions. Those in power-media, politicians, marketers, publicists, large corporations all know this and use it to their advantage every day. To dilute or remove accurate information from labels on food or other products undermines the ability of the average person (ie-someone not “connected”) the ability to make good decisions with regard to their health and welfare. I personally buy organics because I believe the toxicity of the products used by large corporate farms are unsafe and will eventually contaminate the planet to the point of inhabitability. Also, the pesticides used are unsafe for farm workers-many farm workers are now dying at unprecedented rates from cancers that are less common in the general population. I also believe the control of the food supply should not be concentrated in the hands of too few individuals or corporations.
      “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”
      So, there are many many reasons to buy organics besides personal health. Though, one could argue that the health of the planet is the health of us all…

  • Barbara Dauerty

    The reversal of the organic standards is perverted, dishonest, and unethical. It will harm many people and other organisms in this country, and will not be acceptable to many of the nations with which the US does agribusiness.

    Furthermore, this abomination of a policy will tempt me to move me and anyone who will accompany me to Europe, where closer attention has been paid to the lessons we in the US are so blithely flaunting. Soon there will be no bees in the US because we have tried to twist the laws of Nature to fit our whims.

    I can only begin to express my disgust and disappointment in this egotistical, immature denial of healthy standards.

  • Every time I click the link to TAKE ACTION, I am thrown to another site.please fix this.

    • We’re so sorry this continues to be a problem for some of our members. Would you be able to send me more information about what is happening for you when you get redirected? Would you be able to copy/paste the web address you’re routed to? Thanks for any and all help solving this issue.

  • John Solomon

    Please use a public and transparent process for all major changes to organic standards by publishing proposed changes in the Federal Register, and actively seeking public input and discussion. And please enforce the sunset provision of the OFPA as it was originally intended—allowing synthetic products to remain after their “sunset” date only after public debate and a two-thirds vote of the NOSB.

  • Organic foods should not contain any synthetic elements!!! We have a right to know and chose what we want to eat or not. DON’T TAKE OUR FREEDOM OF CHOICE AWAY!!!

  • the government at work!…they never fail to disappoint and disgust the American consumer!
    Shame on all of them

  • Juanita Harrison

    Tell the USDA to use a public and transparent process for all major changes to organic standards by publishing proposed changes in the Federal Register, and actively seeking public input and discussion. In addition, tell the USDA to enforce the sunset provision of the OFPA as it was originally intended—allowing synthetic products to remain after their “sunset” date only after public debate and a two-thirds vote of the NOSB. More than 100 synthetics will be up for sunset consideration in 2015. We must act now to protect the integrity of organics

  • Thank you for helping us protect the true meaning of organic. Synthetic chemicals are not organic and can cause chemical sensitivity. I am one who finds it difficult to live in a synthetic chemical world.

  • Curtis Johnson

    Quit supporting only large corporate farms.

  • Janus Matthes

    I find it outrageous that organic standards are coming under attack by your agency. Organics should be just that, organic and no amounts of synthetic ingredients should be allowed. Enforce the sunset provision of the OFPA as it was written and intended to do.
    Putting industry hacks into board positions does not forebode well for an efficient and science based agency. Actual farmers should be on the board. Your creditability has been undermined.

  • Stuart Small

    Do you represent the people, or do you represent the special interests?

  • Barbara Tyler

    PLEASE make rules to be explicitly truthful in labeling on GMO’s, vaccines and all issues. Consumers should know what they are buying and be able to make truly informed decisions. This is the democratic process that needs to work for and by THE PEOPLE. Has to be based on freely given truthful information.