Organic Consumers Association

Advocates say organic program yielding to industry pressure

Agribusiness Pressures USDA to Allow Toxic Inerts in Organic

By Jack Kittredge

Several recent decisions by Richard Mathews, program director of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP), have alarmed organic advocates. The program, which was implemented on October 21, 2002, sets the rules for certifying organic farms, producers and processors. According to the establishing legislation, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, the program is overseen by a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) composed of unpaid members of the organic and scientific communities.

The NOSB has been meeting for several years to draw up lists of materials suitable and not suitable for use in organic food production, and to set policy on hundreds of issues from compost making to standards for animal access to the out of doors. But respected members of the organic community now fear those NOSB policies are being undercut by NOP administrators. This past fall Mathews said that he intends to add "List 3 Inerts" to the National List of approved substances. List 3 Inerts are the many hundreds of materials the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers of "unknown toxicity". They include substances such as phenols, benzene, napthalene, ureas, acetone, chlorotoluene and piperonyl butoxide.

In 1999 the NOSB Materials Committee voted unanimously not to allow any List 3 Inerts in organic agriculture unless they have been individually reviewed and approved. The NOP move to overrule the NOSB is "clearly in response to industry pressure," says Maine's Eric Sideman, vice chair of the NOSB Materials Committee at the time of the 1999 vote. Although some producers are pressing for inclusion of the materials, he noted, and will be hurt if they remain excluded, a much bigger problem will result for the organic program if they are included. "The consumers' and certifiers' loss of confidence that the NOP is following the Rule will hurt much more," he warns. Another alarming move announced by Mathews is the exclusion of "food contact substances" from review by the NOSB. "Food contact substances" is an FDA classification which includes substrates used in the ion exchange process, a subject of controversy at a recent NOSB meeting. Now they will no longer be subject to NOSB review. NOP Threatens NOFA/Massachusetts Organic Certification Program An NOP decision with special impact in the Northeast was announced by Mathews in November.

At a meeting with organic growers in Connecticut, according to Bill Duesing, NOFA Interstate Council president, and several other organic farmers who also attended, the NOP program director announced that the NOP had overruled the NOFA/Mass Organic Certification Program on a case involving a Massachusetts egg producer. The producer, Mathews related, had applied to the Massachusetts program for certification and been presented with a list of ways in which his operation was not in compliance, including that the farm did not provide adequate access for the chickens to the out of doors. The producer came back with corrections to all the other points, but not the access one. Instead of coming into compliance on that issue, the producer appealed it to the NOP.

Mathews said that, based on advice he received in a letter from a poultry expert, he decided on a "compromise" - to require the farm to provide access to the out of doors only in the months from May through September. He also said the NOFA/Mass Organic Certification program needed to certify the facility in question or lose accreditation for three years. The farm in question, The Country Hen, in Hubbardstown, Massachusetts, had been certified by Quality Assurance International for several years. Owner George Bass has actively promoted his view that outside access for hens is, in many cases, detrimental -Including to the health and safetyof his 67,000 birds. In May of this year he testified at an NOSB hearing on animal access.

He made three arguments:

1) He cited a recent outbreak of avian influenza in Virginia which killed 2.2 million birds and argued that danger from such infection is greater in a range-reared flock;

2) He explained that he has only 13 acres of land and his birds produce over 80 tons of wet manure a month, thus reasoning that allowing them outside would produce environmental damage to the surrounding watershed, and;

3) He calculated the cost of land and buildings which would be required to adequately rotate his birds so as to not pollute and arrived at a total of over $5,000,000.

This issue raises a basic question about the shape of organic farming under the NOP.Will organic "factory farms" be allowed to drive out family operationsas they have in conventional agriculture? The question of organic eggs takes on a larger significance when one realizes the importance of eggs in virtually all baked and many processed products. If a processor is to have the preferred label of 100% organic, then organic eggs are required.

For chickens not only to have access to the out of doors, but to be encouraged to go out when they feel like it, as the NOSB standards require, is hard to arrange in a large, centralized, multi-storied "industrial" chicken operation. Thus the outcome of this issue raises a basic question about the shape of organic farming under the NOP. Will organic "factory farms" be allowed to drive out family operations as they have in conventional agriculture? The NOFA/Mass Organic Certification Program certifies several organic egg producers in Massachusetts, but none on the scale of The Country Hen.

Although The Country Hen has not been granted certification by the NOFA/Mass Organic Certification Program, the company's eggs have been on the market for weeks in local stores in boxes that bear the notation: "Certified Organic by NOFA Mass". When questioned about this an official of the NOFA/Mass Organic Certification Program said it was likely that Mr. Bass believed his eggs were certified, given his appeal to the NOP. NOFA/Mass has not yet taken any action against the egg facility, hoping for a positive resolution of the certification dispute.

But the organization is concerned about the situation because of its larger implications. According to the association's president, Jonathan von Ranson, "If NOP can, this early in the program, usurp the authority of the NOSB and flout basic rules about fairness and objectivity, then public trust in the value of the organic label may be permanently jeopardized."

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