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Protecting the organic market

U.S. sales of certified organic food and products reached $50 billion in 2017, amounting to more than 5 percent of all grocery store sales, including approximately 10 percent of all produce sales. The global market for organics is worth $90 billion USD, according to the 2018 edition of the study “The World of Organic Agriculture,” published by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and IFOAM – Organics International. According to the study, consumer demand for organic products is increasing, more farmers cultivate organically, more land is certified organic, and 178 countries report organic farming activities.

A more recent report, by BlueWeave Consulting, predicts the U.S. organic food market will be worth $375.98 billion by 2025.

As the U.S. organic sector gains new market share and shatters records each year, it is vitally important to safeguard organic standards, which often means preventing large corporations which are buying up organic brands from using their power and influence to weaken USDA organic standards.

OCA was originally founded out of the need to protect organic standards. The organization was formed in 1998, in Finland, Minnesota, in the wake of the mass backlash by organic consumers against the USDA’s proposal to approve genetic engineering, irradiation and toxic sewage sludge for use in organics.Through OCA's Safeguard Organic Standards Campaign, and through collaboration with allied organizations, the organic community was able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of consumers to pressure the USDA to preserve strict organic standards.

History of the National Organic Program

Before 1990, states could develop their own standards for organic food production and processing. That system caused problems when organic products crossed state lines. It was also confusing for consumers. So in 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in order to establish a uniform national organic standards and certification program.

Under OFPA, enacted under the 1990 Farm Bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set up the National Organic Program (NOP) and also created the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory board responsible for advising the Secretary of Agriculture on organic standards.

In 1998, the USDA finally released a weak version of a proposed organic rule, one that would have allowed bioengineered crops, sewage sludge, and irradiation in organic. OCA, Beyond Pesticides and many other organizations rallied consumers to protest the rule and eventually prevailed.

Defending organic law

Consumers prevailed in 1998, but the battle to preserve organic standards was just getting started. In 2002, Arthur Harvey, a Maine organic blueberry farmer, sued the USDA for allowing products containing synthetic ingredients to be sold as organic. Harvey argued that under the original OFPA rule, products could be certified organic only if they were 95 percent organic and 100 percent natural—in other words, no synthetic ingredients were allowed. Yet the USDA organic standards, in violation of OFPA, allowed some non-organic substances and synthetic ingredients.

Initially, the courts ruled against Harvey. His lawsuit was also hugely unpopular with many organic producers who said they either couldn't find natural or organic substitutes for the synthetics they used, or couldn't afford them. In 2004, OCA joined other organizations in a lawsuit in support of Harvey.

Then in 2005, an appeals court sided with Harvey, arguing that the USDA organic standards needed to be brought in line with OFPA. The decision led to an "organic industry food fight," and ultimately, to a deal in which the Organic Trade Association negotiated an amendment to OFPA that allowed for synthetics. OCA, along with many other groups, signed an open letter to the OTA decrying not only the amendment, but the undemocratic process used to achieve it.

Ultimately, OCA agreed to support the amendment to avoid a major rewrite of OFPA. In a statement, we said that we agreed that synthetics may be allowed in the “Made With” Organic ingredients category if there is no non-synthetic ingredient currently available, and if the synthetic ingredient is rigorously reviewed by the NOSB.

The ongoing battle over synthetics in organic

Under current USDA organic standards, the NOP keeps a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances in organic. OCA and other groups monitor the list on an ongoing basis and oppose substances that we believe should be removed from the list. For example, along with other organizations, we won the battle to prohibit carrageenan in organic, and keep tetracycline out of organic apple production.

In April 2014, OCA's political director, Alexis Baden-Mayer was arrested for protesting changes to NOP's process for removing non-organic ingredients and materials from its National List. OCA argued that the changes, made without due process or input from the public, further eroded organic standards and would result in the list of synthetic and non-organic ingredients and materials allowed in organic to grow increasingly, and irreversibly longer.

In April 2016, OCA sued The Honest Company, founded by the Hollywood actress Jessica Alba, and The Hain Celestial Group for falsely labeling products “organic” that contain ingredients prohibited under OFPA.

Policing the organic frauds

Foods labeled "USDA Organic" have long been the gold standard for health and sustainability. But unfortunately, as the organic market expands, big corporations, especially those that gobble up organic brands, are constantly seeking to change the rules so they can label more of their products “organic.” This has led to erosion of both organic standards and consumer trust in the organic label for products such as eggs, milk and even grains. OCA is committed to exposing the fraudulent players in the organic industry, while working fighting for stronger, not weaker, organic standards. 

However, we also endorse labeling and certification systems that exceed organic standards, including the Real Organic Project, the American Grassfed Association Dairy Standards, the Savory Institute's Land to Market Program and the Regenerative Organic Certification, a joint project of the Rodale Institute, Patagonia and others.

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