WASHINGTON, Sept. 26, 2013 – A seemingly innocuous change to organic substance review protocols by USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is drawing fire from some in the organic industry, who say the modification will dramatically decrease the likelihood that certain synthetic materials could be banned from use in USDA-certified organic foods.

Prior to a Sept. 16 announcement in the Federal Register, synthetic substances listed as acceptable by the National Organic Program (NOP) were reviewed every five years as part of the “sunset” process. That process included a public meeting and eventually, a vote by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). If two-thirds of the body’s members voted in favor of the substance, it remained on the accepted list.

Examples of synthetic but permitted substances include products like baking soda, which do not have an organic equivalent but have been deemed necessary to the production of otherwise organic products, like pancakes and muffins. But the list also includes substances like methionine, which is used in organic poultry productions at levels specified by NOSB.

Now, USDA will allow that substance process to reverse. Two public meetings, rather than one, will now take place as a substance review. Then the board will vote whether to take the substance in question off the list, rather than whether to allow it to stay on. If two-thirds do not vote to remove the substance, it will remain on the list.

The entire process is meant to incentivize the creation of new, organic compounds to replace the synthetic ones. In 2009, for example, NOSB removed soy lecithin from the list after Clarkson Soy Products LLC created an organic alternative.

But that procedure, some organic and consumer groups warn, is threatened by USDA’s new guidelines.

A coalition of organizations, including Food & Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides, Consumers Union and the Center for Food Safety, say the process first “lowers the bar for much of the organic market” by failing to continuously ensure the purity of the organic label. That would make it easier for producers who also grow non-organic products to simply substitute a few ingredients to create a certified organic product, while leaving permitted synthetics in the supply chain.

If industry does not continue to push new alternatives, argues Food and Water Watch’s Patty Lovera, consumer trust in the “USDA certified organic” label could erode. Removing synthetic materials from otherwise organic foods is “a big piece of the integrity of the [industry],” she said.

USDA and its Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees NOSB, might beg to differ. In its Federal Register announcement, the department said its new process “ensures NOSB proposals are exposed to robust public comment” through the two public meetings involved in each substance review.

USDA also says the new process is more consistent with the Organic Food Production Act’s demand that the sunset review process use a “decisive” two-thirds vote. Additionally, the department says on its website that the new procedure provides the entire organic industry with increased “stability” by making it “as difficult to remove a previously approved substance from the list as it was to add it in the first place.”

The next step for the procedure’s opponents might involve a legal battle. Mark Kastel, co-founder of the pro-organic Cornucopia Institute, called the USDA’s decision to change the procedure evidence of “terrible, dictatorial, corporate-favored influence” in the department, and he would “be surprised if this doesn’t end up in court.”

“We’re just doing the legal research now,” he said, and promised that his group would take up the case if it thought it could win.


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