SAN ANTONIO, April 29, 2014 - The semiannual meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) opened haltingly Tuesday, delayed for 30 minutes by a protest over policy changes and, moments later, a procedural effort to remove the USDA official charged with running the meeting.
As the meeting was about to open, six people, carrying a banner stating “Safeguard Organic Standards” and identifying themselves as members of the Organic Consumers Association, presented to the board three boxes they said contained petitions signed by 75,000 people, then turned and stood facing the audience, chanting “Don't change sunset.” The protest was aimed at a USDA Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) decision last fall to change procedures under which synthetic materials hitting their five-year “sunset,” or expiration date, can be continued or removed in a list of material approved for organic production.
Efforts by board chairman Mac Stone to persuade the protesters to end their demonstration proved futile, leading to the arrival some 20 minutes later of San Antonio police officers. All but one of the protesters had peeled off by the time police arrived, leaving a single demonstrator, who, continuing to chant, was handcuffed and carried by her arms and legs out of the meeting hall.
Once an effort to restart the meeting was made, board member Jay Feldman, executive director and co-founder of the national environmental and public health group Beyond Pesticides, called for a vote on a motion that Miles McEvoy, the deputy AMS administrator who also serves as manager of USDA's National Organics Program (NOP), step away from his role opening and co-chairing the meeting and turn the responsibility over to Stone.
Feldman cited the board's Policies and Procedures Manual to base his claim that McEvoy should not be eligible to head the meeting. McEvoy, in turn, quoted the same manual to assert that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is authorized to designate a federal officer (McEvoy) to chair the board meeting. McEvoy later said he was only assuming the board chair for that part of the agenda involving some rather lengthy NOP presentations and that Stone would assume the position for the remainder of the meeting.
After 10 minutes of somewhat confusing debate over Robert's Rules of Order and a five minute recess, Feldman agreed to table his motion, saying he feared efforts to move it forward could close down the meeting. However, he promised to “keep it on the table” and revisit the issue.
Elsewhere, Consumers Reports released a survey in which more than 70 percent of the 1,000 people polled said, not surprisingly, that they wanted as few artificial ingredients in organic products as possible.
The survey was aimed at pressuring board members who this week will deliberate on several material exemptions, including the antibiotic streptomycin’s use on apples and pears, synthetic materials for aquaculture ‑ before standards for organic fish have been defined, a group connected to Consumer Reports said – and artificial ingredients in poultry feed. The group complains that the materials under consideration are the latest in a long proliferation of exemptions and their renewed listing, given the survey, does not represent what consumers expect from the organic label.
“Despite the fact that the public does not want a host of artificial ingredients in their organic food, some national advisers and decision-makers in the National Organic Program have overtly expressed a desire to grow the exemption list in order to grow the organic market,” said Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “We believe this violates the public’s trust of what organic means.”
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This story was updated at 3:39 Eastern time.