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Senator Leahy and Representative DeFazio Tell USDA to Back off on Allowing More Synthetic Ingredients in Organic

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 Dear Secretary Vilsack :

As the principal authors of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, we are writing to raise concerns about the recent sunset policy change made by your agency, which we believe to be in conflict with both the letter and intent of the statute. We are particularly concerned that such a substantive policy change was made without the benefit of full notice and comment.

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 establishes the overall principle that in order for any organic product to be labeled as "organic",it must be "produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals." In recognition that there may be circumstances where a synthetic chemical is needed, and no non-synthetic material is available to address the need, the law also establishes a very thorough review process whereby certain synthetic chemicals could be permitted for use in organic products under a temporary exemption to the synthetic prohibition but would sunset after 5 years.

This process requires the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizen oversight board established by OFPA, to review each material based on a stringent list of science and market-based considerations that analyze its impact on human and environmental health, its compatibility with the principles of organic agriculture, as well as an analysis of the existence of viable non-synthetic alternatives. Further, the law specifies that two-thirds of the full NOSB must vote in favor of allowing the synthetic material to be used, and the proposal be forwarded to the Secretary of Agriculture for a formal rulemaking to add the material to the "National List" of allowed and prohibited substances.

In addition to establishing a very high hurdle for allowing the short-term (5-year) exemption to the synthetic chemical prohibition, the law also establishes a sunset process under Section 2118(e) whereby all materials on the National List become invalid unless the matter is re-reviewed under the same statutory review procedures within 5 years of its previous adoption, and renewed by the Secretary of Agriculture. As with the initial listing, two-thirds of the full Board must vote in favor of that recommendation for it to be valid. This long-standing interpretation of this crucial aspect of OFPA is not only in keeping with our intent in writing OFPA, but is also in keeping with the plain reading of the statute .