Organic Label Standards in Peril

organic labelby Catherine Haug, Aug 4, 2014 (image, right from

This post offers a summary of an article in Montana Organic Association’s Organic Matters newsletter, including quoted text. The original article is by Barry Flamm, Former National Organic Standards Board Chair and MOA Lifetime Member. You can read the full article on the MOA Website (1). It’s a long article; even my notes are long. Here’s what it all really boils down to:

  • “Does the organic community and public want a strong NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) as prescribed by OFPA (Organic Food Production Act of 1990)?
  • Does the organic community and the public believe and want the implementation of the overall principle of OFPA that for any product to be labeled organic it must be produced and handled without the use of chemicals with only temporary exemptions allowed and then only after stringent review?” (1)

If you have strong feelings in response to these questions, please contact your legislators and/or the White House (see our page: Government (Contact)). To contact the Secretary of Agriculture see US Secretary of Agriculture Contact Page.

What is the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)?

In short, the NOSB develops standards that assure Organics of being truly ‘Organic’ and not contaminated with synthetic and bio-engineered substances.

It was created by the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA). Its intent is to be an “essential advisor to the Secretary of Agriculture.” This includes (1):

  • “Recommending key standards to the Secretary;”
  • “Advising the Secretary on all aspects of the implementation of OFPA;”
  • “Evaluating substances for inclusion on the Proposed National List”
  • “Developing a Policy and Procedures Manual (PPM) to guide its important activities.”

This 15-member board is “intended to be the voice of the organic community, and to represent its broad interests.” (See the full article of qualifications of the 15 members (1)).

“The Board has served a vital role from the very beginning of USDA’s organic program, holding meetings and consulting with the public in developing recommendations for implementing the standards. When these recommendations were ignored by the USDA, there was unprecedented public response leading to the rule’s rewrite, excluding such undesirable features as allowing the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).” (1)

The National Organic Program (NOP)

This program was established int he Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) within the USDA to administer the OFPA requirements. Originally its staff was very small, but  was increased substantially in 2008 in response to public and USDA interest in Organics. The NOP collaborated with the NOSB in the performance of its duties.

The beginning of the end to the NOSB?

This effective relationship began to change in 2013; the NOP took away the ability of the NOSB to develop its work plan and agenda, limiting the independent advisory role of the NOSB to the Secretary of Agriculture – and thus also limiting the influence of the public.

Perhaps the most alarming result of this change came in September 2013, when dramatic changes in the approval process for synthetic and non-organic materials allowed on the National List for use in organic food and agriculture. These changes, which impacted the ‘sunset’ policy’ for non-organicmaterials, were in conflict with the PPM and were implemented without consultation with NOSB, the organic stakeholders or the public. This sunset policy allowed for a temporary exemption for such materials, but would sunset after 5 years; the change to the policy allows for automatic renewal of approval of the exemption at the five-year sunset mark, and established a high hurdle (two-thirds vote) to remove the substances from the list. This change basically opened the door for including non-organic substances including GMOs in products labeled as “Organic.”

In April of 2014, the principle authors of the original Organic Food Production Act, spoke out against these changes. Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter DeFazio wrote Secretary Vilsack to raise concerns about the new sunset policy change “which we believe to be in conflict with the letter and intent of the statute. We are particularly concerned that such a substantive change was made without the benefit of full notice and comment.” (1)

Also in April 2014, former past chairs of the NOSB wrote Secretary Vilsack to express “grave concerns regarding recent changes unilaterally enacted by the USDA’s NOP that significantly erode the authority, independence and input of the NOSB.” (1) They appealed to the Secretary to intervene and suspend the policies enacted by the NOP.

Instead of addressing the concerns of the legislators and former NOSB board chairs and others, the USDA/NOP tried to cement the radical changes through an amendment to the NOSB Federal Advisory Board Charter, to terminate the NOSB.  (1)

The Organic response

Twenty organizations  petitioned amendments to the 2014 NOSB Charter that accurately reflect the:

  1. Continuing and non-discretionary duties of the NOSB; and
  2. Mandatory, continuing and interminable status of the NOSB. (1)

The signatories to the petition are (1):

  • Beyond Pesticides,
  • Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association,
  • Center for Food Safety,
  • Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service,
  • Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners,
  • The Cornucopia Institute,
  • Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance,
  • La Montanita Coop NM,
  • Food and Water Watch,
  • Equal Exchange,
  • Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council,
  • NE Organic Associations of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont,
  • Organic Consumers Association,
  • Organically Grown Company,
  • PCC Natural Markets.

NOTE: As there was limited time to reach out to more interested stakeholders, the petition may be re-opened soon for others to sign.

Subsequent to the petition, the Cornucopia Institute has since petitioned the White House, asking President Obama and USDA Secretary Vilsack to reverse the USDA coup undermining the organic governing board and shifting power to agribusiness lobbyists. The petition also asks to stop allowing corporations to add gimmicky and risky synthetic chemicals to organics. (1)


  1. Full Article:

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