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Organic Consumers Accuse USDA Regulators of Surrendering to Corporate Interests

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When the organic industry gathers in central Texas next week sparks are predicted to fly when farmers and consumer activists face off with government regulators who they have accused of a “power grab,” significantly eroding a unique public and private partnership that Congress created in the governance of organic food and agriculture.

At issue is the unilateral reversal of 20 years of precedent in the congressionally-mandated National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) effectively deciding the working definition of “organic” as a food production system and what, if any, synthetics are safe to include in organic food. The NOSB, a 15-member panel of organic stakeholders, representing farmer, consumer, environmental, retail, scientific and food processors, will begin its Spring 2014 meeting on April 29.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

“Corporate interests, including the industry lobby group the Organic Trade Association, have been gaming the system for years with the help of the USDA,” alleges Mark A. Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute. “What has changed recently, as a result of the NOSB refusing to go along with agribusiness in approving gimmicky synthetics and nutraceuticals in organic food, is that they have now had their minions at the USDA change the rules in the middle of the game.”

In Sept. 2013, Deputy Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service at the USDA, Miles McEvoy, issued a controversial memorandum overturning two decades of precedents in terms of the NOSB’s self-governance.

The NOSB was created by Congress to be an industry advisory group with a number of specific statutory responsibilities, something that is unusual for a federal panel of this nature. The body now faces a loss of control over the setting its own work plans, agendas and policies.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), specifically states that the NOSB must approve any synthetic used in organics and must re-review these materials when they "sunset" every five years.

“I see a clear disconnect between the successes gained by powerful economic interests in the $30 billion plus organic industry and the family-scale farmers who get their hands dirty for a living,” said Kevin Engelbert, a New York dairy farmer and past member of the NOSB.

Engelbert’s statement references corporate interests that are focusing their lobbying prowess on the USDA’s National Organic Program and facilitating a shift to factory farm production of milk and eggs, along with an exponential increase in the importation of organic commodities from developing countries, principally China.

“We seem to be headed for an organic marketplace with two distinct branches, which will force consumers to make an extra effort to ensure that the organic brands they purchase are truly high-integrity,” Engelbert added.

The Cornucopia Institute has issued a number of research reports and associated scorecards ranking organic dairy, egg, soy food cereal and other brands based on their ethical approach to meeting organic standards.

Many groups at the San Antonio meeting, besides Cornucopia, are expected to articulate equally grave concerns about the USDA’s circumvention of “congressional intent” when it comes to organic governance including the Organic Consumer Association, the National Organic Coalition and Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports magazine).

Alexis Baden, a Washington-based attorney and chief political strategist for the Organic Consumers Association, will be among organic community leaders publicly condemning the USDA for “selling-out” the interest of consumers.

“There’s a lot at stake at this meeting,” Baden said. “The new rules will make it very hard for citizens to influence board decisions on sunsetting materials.”

“One hot button issue that will be addressed by the NOSB in San Antonio is the continued use of the antibiotic streptomycin. All public interest groups representing consumers and farmers oppose its use based on human health and environmental concerns.”

Although antibiotics are banned in organic livestock production, a temporary provision allow them to be sprayed on apple and pear trees to control the bacterial infection known as fireblight.

The Cornucopia Institute has spent the past few months collaborating with other groups and its legal team in determining which changes by the USDA appear to either directly violate OFPA and/or the transparent process that governs this and other federal panels.

“It’s a shame that citizens and public interest groups, instead of being able to rely on USDA to do the right thing, need to go to the expense of lawyering-up to defend the rights of organic consumers, and ethical business participants,” said Gary Cox, an experienced litigator who has sued the USDA twice (once on behalf of Cornucopia) is once again assisting the organization in its dispute with regulators.

“We have not quit trying to diplomatically approach the leadership at the USDA, and the Obama Administration, suggesting that they have erred in undermining the powers of the NOSB to review materials for use in organic production and processing,” stated Jim Riddle, an organic food producer from Minnesota who served five-years on the National Organic Standards Board, including one year as its chairman. “The new sunset policy turns existing NOSB procedures upside down.”

Riddle (NOSB chairman 2005), along with other former NOSB chairman, Jeff Moyer (2009) and Barry Flamm (2012), recently sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack appealing to him to intervene to restore the power that Congress vested in the NOSB.

“The best battle is the one you don’t have to fight,” observed Cornucopia’s Kastel. “At this juncture we hope that Secretary Vilsack will be proactive and pull back their arbitrary and capricious changes rather than being forced to face off in court.”

Background

Although not new during the Obama Administration, the USDA has squandered thousands of hours of time—both for NOSB members and many engaged organic farmers, consumers, retailers and processors—by ignoring recommendations from the board after they have been developed through numerous public meetings and formal public comment sessions (both written and verbal).

“The broad-based members of the NOSB, along with some of the most experienced and knowledgeable individuals and organizations in this industry, have always worked earnestly to transparently develop policy,” added Riddle. “It’s highly disrespectful to ignore the powers given to the Board, by law.”

To illustrate the divide in the organic industry, subsequent to a news release by four respected public interest groups (Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides and Center for Food Safety) decrying the edicts by the USDA’s Miles McEvoy, turning back 20 years of precedent in citizen governance of the organic program, Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations (lobbyist) for United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI) stated in her blog: “Stop the lies and get behind your national organic program.”

Dismissing the concerns of these four organizations, that had been involved in and participating in the NOSB process for many years, calling their concerns “bogus,” was even more poignant in that Meyer had just been elected board president of the Organic Trade Association. UNFI, a multibillion-dollar publicly-traded corporation, is the largest distributor of organic food in the U.S.

“This is not surprising because prominent OTA members, who have employees serving on the NOSB (Driscoll’s, Whole Foods, Organic Valley, CCOF, Zirkle Fruit Company, WhiteWave/Earthbound Farms) consistently vote as a ‘corporate block’ carrying the water of the OTA and agribusiness during critical debates on the NOSB,” Kastel added.

Here, view the independent analysis, by The Cornucopia Institute, of all synthetic materials and policy questions that will come before the NOSB at their upcoming meeting in San Antonio, Texas April 29 through May 2.

The Cornucopia Institute also compiled an objective recap of all public comments, both pro and con, from individual citizens (consumers and farmers), public interest groups, business/trade organizations and food processors.

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