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Devil in the Details--Organic Standards

It seems like there is always a new “crossroads” being encountered in the recent history of organic regulations and growth. Starting in 1989, the organic community struggled with the initial drafting and passage of the Organic Food Production Act, then through the early years of debates about standards with the NOSB, then the various versions of the proposed regulations (Save Organic Standards!) Accreditation of certifiers began in 2001, then implementation of the rules occurred with much anxiety in 2002, a rider to the law was added and repealed in 2003 (the chicken feed fiasco), and “directives” were issued by NOP and retracted in 2004. Now we have had to face a major change brought on by the Harvey lawsuit and suddenly, an industry generated change to the original law. Sometimes it seems like we must be turning in the same direction each time we come to the proverbial crossroad, and ending in the same place, as these same arguments are recycled. But despite all the turmoil, the organic industry is thriving and growing, because organic food really is a good idea, consumers do want to buy it, and because there is an active community that really cares about maintaining strong standards to provide a clear definition of what is organic.

 We can all agree that the basic principles of organic agriculture, and the whole idea of ‘organic integrity” are much bigger than the laws and regulations that have been crafted to try and define organic systems. As a person who has been involved in efforts to help craft, interpret and enforce the details of the organic regulations over the last 15 years I can wholeheartedly agree that no regulation, no set of rules, or list of materials can really do justice to the vision of ecological agriculture that we all hold is such high esteem. Grace Gershuny did an excellent job writing the definition of organic production that is now ensconced in the NOP rule:

 “A production system that is managed … to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

 It has always been a challenge to translate this holistic vision into a workable set of regulations, without putting rigid limits around what should be based on a natural system, evolving and changing and adapting to the specific situations that each farm and microclimate demands. For this reason, many organic farmers do not wish to be certified.

 They prefer not to be constricted in decision-making or bound by rules that do not seem appropriate or that they can’t have control over – this is their choice to make. There is room for all different types of positive marketing claims, but for those working on organic rules, the charge has been to try to keep the organic claim meaningful, and true to the vision.

 Once the decision was made to set up a national system of organic standards, a workable method was needed. The suggestion that the whole basis of our system relies on an artificial distinction between what is “natural” and what is “synthetic” is overly simplistic. The wishful idea of “agronomic responsibility” as sole criterion for organic standards sounds good, kind of like “sustainable agriculture” has a nice ring to it, but what does this really mean when you try and decide what is or is not allowed. Is every choice site-specific to every farm? Is just a little bit of Roundup on the fencerow ok?

 Who gets to make the decision that a practice is “responsible”? Faced with this difficulty, we now have a set of rules based on verifying the process of production, that also include as a basic premise, the reliance on natural systems and materials with some specific exemptions created for synthetic substances. These exemptions are permitted based on a set of criteria that ask questions about the ecological and yes, the “responsible” nature of these materials. Rather than blame this evolution of our standards on the fact that “consumers could never understand the nuances of agronomic responsibility” we should acknowledge our own responsibility for drawing some lines in the sand. A set of standards must be understandable, consistent and enforceable if it is to be meaningful as a marketing claim.

 Precise rules and consistent certification decisions, along with competent accreditation are not merely a “quagmire of red tape and picky standards” but actually are the mortar and bricks needed to assure the consumer is in fact getting what they expect. Yes, consumers should be a huge part of the input on what the standards are. Disrespecting the voice of the consumer will mean loss of the consumer. More education is always needed, especially about the actual methods and environmental benefits provided by organic systems, but one must give the consumers credit for their choices and work to include them as stakeholders in the standards setting process.

 There is a false choice being offered – that one must either be a “purist” obsessed with minute details of rules, and determined to protect an ‘elite’ niche market, or that one is instead a big picture environmentalist, dedicated to vastly increasing the acreage of organic crops and livestock, and providing organic food for all. This overlooks a very real possibility, that if the confidence in meaningful organic rules is lost, or organic food is seen by consumers to represent no real difference or improvement from conventional food production, the opportunities for converting this vast acreage will be lost. Without careful vigilance and commitment to strong standards, everyone loses.

 What was the Fight About? Should We Really Care?

 Now that we have a “new” OFPA, what does it all mean? Were the changes really that damaging or is all the noise overblown? Why should anyone care about “picky subjects” like the mysterious ‘food contact substances”? Although one may consider the details fussy, insignificant, (or worse, incredibly boring), in the “organic spirit” of educating us all about what is in our organic food, here is a synopsis of the issues at stake.

 Synthetics Allowed in Food Processing

 When OFPA was originally debated back in 1989, there was a lot of question about whether any synthetics should be allowed at all. Farmers insisted they needed some synthetic materials that were traditionally used, such as copper, sulfur, soaps, oils, vitamins and minerals for animal feed, etc. Environmental groups who were key partners is supporting this legislation did not want to create unlimited allowance for synthetic substances, so a list of categories was inserted to create some boundaries (see section 6517(c)(1)(B)). Despite some prodding, those representing the processing interests did not want to add a similar set of limited categories for use of synthetics and specifically excluded any synthetics from use in processed foods. This was back in the day of “natural foods”, remember, and the thinking at the time was that organic foods should in fact be completely natural, and there were relatively few organic processed products on the market. As time went on, and more organic processed food became popular, including breakfast cereals, beverages, snack foods and yes, frozen dinners, it became clear that the initial “no synthetics” stance meant it would be very difficult to manufacture any organic processed food. The NOSB argued about this topic, but went ahead and voted to allow a specific list of synthetic materials, with the idea that USDA would advise them if this was not feasible. A significant minority of those paying attention at the time felt that the inclusion of synthetics was inconsistent with OFPA, but this view did not get much traction. The USDA included the list of synthetics for processing into the final regulations, which led to the inevitable lawsuit, with the ruling in favor of Arthur Harvey.

 Now, there were many possibilities for how to deal with this problem faced by organic processors, but instead we now have to deal with a change to the law that was inserted quickly, with no opportunity for discussion or adjustment. Supposedly, the changes to section 6510 and 6517 will simply provide authority for the existing NOP regulations that permit synthetics and little will change (see the sidebar on next page for text of changes). Rather than add a new section of categories, similar to the restrictions that organic crop and livestock farmers must live with, this change simply deletes the phrase “the substance is used in handling and is non-synthetic but is not organically produced. ” The court ruled in January 2005 that this phrase specifically prohibited all synthetic ingredients and processing aids (substances used in handling that do not end up in the final product). The law has now gone from a total prohibition on synthetics in processing, to an unrestricted allowance that is not consistent with the way synthetics are restricted for crop and livestock production.

 The court ruling could have been seen as an opportunity to improve and clearly define the limited allowance for synthetics that the NOSB has supported over the years, but in the rush to “fix” the problem, there was no thought for this. The criteria NOSB developed to restrict synthetics in processing could have been added to the OFPA, but this was not done. These criteria will likely remain in the regulations (205.600(b)) but as currently worded do not even apply to ingredients, just “processing aids and adjuvants.” This means ingredients that are used to create texture, convenience, or used as preservatives may be allowed. Some additives have already been proposed and are awaiting final rulemaking – for example tetrasodium pyrophosphate has been proposed to provide texture for dough used in texturized vegetable protein products. Sodium acid pyrophosphate has been recommended as leavening for slow-rising refrigerated doughnuts. This raises a bigger picture question, what is organic processed food supposed to be? Must we have organic doughnuts made from refrigerated dough that can be stored for weeks? Should organic food travel down this slippery slope toward allowing all FDA approved food additives? I am sure most in the industry would say no, but this amendment gives us very few tools to work with to prevent this from happening.

 The “picky questions” about food contact substances arise from the fact that USDA has already chosen to endorse a policy statement that redefines the term “ingredient” for the purposes of organic food. The NOP stated in 2002 that “ingredients” only include limited classes of FDA approved food additives, that large numbers do not have to be reviewed and included on the National List, including those considered “food contact substances,” which also meet the definition of processing aids. The FDA publishes a huge list, continually enlarging, of chemicals considered food contact substance, which FDA claims do not have a technical effect in the food product. These include antimicrobials that may be added to juice, preservatives and slimicides added to packaging, and many, many more. The fact that the OFPA amendment specifically allows synthetic ingredients in processed foods (section 6510), and no longer refers to synthetic “substances” that are prohibited, appears to open the door for USDA to continue this misguided interpretation of the definition of “ingredient.”

 There are likely to be further legal debates about the actual results of this amendment. The amendment did not change a key provision in section 6504, which states that no synthetic chemicals, other than those permitted may be used, and this combined with the change in 6510 may have the unintended effect of prohibiting any processing aids. This kind of ambiguity, along with the fact that there was no public discussion or report of Congressional intent issued, will likely cause further disagreements down the road, surely an outcome that could have been avoided, given a more public vetting of the language.

Commercial Availability

 The Court ruled in the Harvey suit that all non-organic ingredients must appear on the National List, including the agricultural ingredients not commercially available used in 5% of a product labeled organic. The amendment language now states that the Secretary of Agriculture “ may develop emergency procedures for designating agricultural products that are commercially unavailable in organic form for placement on the National List for a period of time not to exceed 12 months.” Previously this decision was made by certification agents, so many farm groups were particularly upset about this provision as it hands the decision over to the Secretary, without even NOSB review.

 There has been little discussion or details provided as to how this will work, and seems at best to be a poor solution to the problem. This is an idea that needed much more development before a rash change to the Act was made that gives unrestricted authority to the Secretary. The original OFPA carefully limited the Secretary’s authority, especially regarding materials used in food production, and this addition certainly breaks with that precedent.

 Big Problem Looms for Dairy Transition

 The new amendment allows third year transitional feed produced on farm to be fed as organic to a herd of animals converting with the farm, avoiding a four-year transition (crops and then livestock). This provision is non-controversial, and is the current practice under the existing regulation.

 The USDA remains under Court order to issue revised rules by June 9, 2006 that eliminate the allowance of 20% non-organic feed in the conversion year. This limited change will result in a huge problem, however if NOP decides to drop the requirement for organic management of young dairy stock once the herd is converted, which is linked to the 20% feed allowance section in the regulation. According to some who have discussed this with NOP staff, the USDA is planning to do exactly that. Some dairy processors are telling farmers now that, after June 9, anyone can buy non-organic heifers and transition them for 12 months into an organic herd.

 This will allow non-organic animals as replacement stock on a continuing basis; thus allowing confinement, the use of non-organic feed – including GMOs and slaughter products, as well as antibiotics and other drugs for young animals. In the Northeast, certifiers have been requiring organic management of young stock, once the herd is initially converted since even before the 2002 rule was implemented. This weakening of standards will not benefit small farmers in any way; it will harm the market for organic heifers, destroy incentive for organic herd management, and could cause lack of consumer confidence. It will certainly benefit large-scale operators, who want to rapidly convert large numbers of animals, and find it more efficient and cheaper to ship off young stock for non-organic management when young.

 The NOSB has been on record since October of 2002 with a position requiring organic management from last third of gestation once a herd has converted to organic production. Since the OFPA amendment opened the door on this significant issue, we are now faced with another looming battle to ask NOP to step up to the plate on this issue.

 The Next Steps

 The biggest lesson learned in the last year, is that we all need to pay attention. We can’t assume that the Organic Trade Association represents all interests of the organic community, although of course we can work together when interests of farmers, trade, and consumers do coincide. As the organic industry has grown, it is time for the various sectors to step forward and speak up. This will strengthen the support for organics overall, when more diverse stakeholders are consulted and included. We can’t assume that the work on standards is done, or is not important. The public outcry over harmful proposals has been incredibly effective in the past 5 years, and this attention must be maintained.

Despite the noise, and sometimes dissonance created, organic production continues to grow and thrive, in what must be considered an organic manner!

Here is a short list of critical actions at USDA and in Congress to plan for in the coming year:

• Pasture rules will be proposed shortly, after many years of farmer and NOSB demands for clarification. A summit in State College PA on April 18 will provide NOP and NOSB with more “expert” input, to be used in crafting the final rule.

• New rules will be issued by June on organic dairy transition and replacement animals, and may allow problematic loopholes for non-organic dairy replacement animals.

• Synthetic materials will continue to be added to the rules for organic processing: insist that careful criteria and limits are applied, that all synthetics used in direct food contact are reviewed by the NOSB, and that the USDA policy on food contact substances be withdrawn.

• Farm bill discussions are underway by many groups working to include organic programs and incentives. Strengthening of OFPA may be needed, if USDA is unresponsive to public input on regulation changes regarding pasture, dairy stock, and synthetics in processing.

All NOFA members can help, by staying in touch and providing input to their chapter leadership on organic policy issues in the coming year.

Emily Brown Rosen is currently Secretary of the NOFA NJ Board of Directors, member of the NOFA Interstate policy committee, works as Materials Manager for Pennsylvania Certified Organic (a USDA accredited certifier), and also operates Organic Research Associates, a consulting company that provides technical services on organic issues.

Changes to the Organic Food Production Act, November 2005.

(underlined words were added, deletions are italicized)


To be sold or labeled as an organically produced agricultural product under this chapter, an agricultural product shall

(1) have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except as otherwise provided in this chapter; [no changes to this section]


(a) In General. For a handling operation to be certified under this chapter, each person on such handling operation shall not, with respect to any agricultural product covered by this chapter

(1) add any synthetic ingredient not appearing on the National List during the processing or any post harvest handling of the product;


(a) In General. The Secretary shall establish a National List ……

(b) Content of List. The list established under subsection (a) of this section shall contain an itemization, by specific use or application, of each synthetic substance permitted under subsection (c) (1) of this section or each natural substance prohibited under subsection (c)(2) of this section.

(c) Guidelines for Prohibitions or Exemptions.

(1) EXEMPTION FOR PROHIBITED SUBSTANCES IN ORGANIC PRODUCTION AND HANDLING OPERATIONS. - The National List may provide for the use of substances in an organic farming or handling operation that are otherwise prohibited under this chapter only if -

(A) the Secretary determines, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, that the use of such substances

(i) would not be harmful to human health or the environment;

(ii) is necessary to the production or handling of the agricultural product because of unavailability of wholly natural substitute products; and

(iii) is consistent with organic farming and handling;

(B) the substance

(i) is used in production and contains an active synthetic ingredient in the following categories: copper and sulfur compounds; toxins derived from bacteria; pheromones, soaps, horticultural oils, fish emulsions, treated seed, vitamins and minerals; livestock paraciticides and medicines and production aids including netting, tree wraps and seals, insect traps, sticky barriers, row covers, and equipment cleansers; or

(ii) is used in production and contains synthetic inert ingredients that are not classified by the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency as inerts of toxicological concern; or and

(iii) is used in handling and is non-synthetic but is not organically produced; and

(C) the specific exemption is developed using the procedures described in subsection (d) of this section.

(d) Procedure for Establishing National List.

[(1)- (5) describes the role of the Secretary and NOSB in establishing the National List]

(6) EXPEDITED PETITIONS FOR COMMERCIALLY UNAVAILABLE ORGANIC AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS CONSTITUING LESS THAN 5 PERCENT OF AN ORGANIC PROCESSED PRODUCT. – The Secretary may develop emergency procedures for designating agricultural products that are commercially unavailable in organic form for placement on the National List for a period of time not to exceed 12 months.


(e) Additional Guidelines.

(2) Dairy Livestock

(A) IN GENERAL. – Except as provided in subparagaraph (B), dairy animal from which milk or milk products will be sold or labeled as organically produced shall be raised and handled in accordance with this chapter for not less than the 12-month period immediately prior to the sale of such milk and milk products.

(B) TRANSITION GUIDELINE. – Crops and forage from land included in the organic system plan of a dairy farm that is in the third year of organic management may be consumed by the dairy animals of the farm during the 12-month period immediately prior to the sale of organic milk and milk products.