National Organic Program Rule Change

(Thanks for this guest diary on an important federal policy change that will affect consumers as well as farmers. The issue has been below the radar as the government shutdown and "Obamacare" rollout dominated the news. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

As a member of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), I have been asked by consumers how the rules recently got changed in the National Organic Program (NOP) to make it easier for synthetic materials on the National List of Approved Materials to be relisted when they sunset after five years (as required by law).  To clarify, any synthetic materials approved for use in organic production and handling must be approved by the NOSB by a two-thirds majority vote.  And, by law, those materials sunset in five years and must be re-approved by the NOSB to remain on the National List.  

The recent rule change — made by USDA without consultation with the NOSB — turns the voting upside down, changing the voting for sunseting materials from a former two-thirds majority to re-approve a sunseting material to two-thirds majority to de-list a sunseting material.  As Jim Riddle, long-time leader in the organic community and former Chair of the NOSB points out below in a letter to the Organic Trade Association (who supports the rule change), that is a huge change.  

From Jim Riddle

October 11, 2013

To the OTA Board of Directors:

I have been involved in the organic sector since the early 1980’s as a producer, inspector, trainer, policy specialist, outreach coordinator, grant program administrator, activist and eater- as well as serving on the National Organic Standards Board. I have been a member of the Organic Trade Association since the early 1990’s, was co-author of OTA’s American Organic Standards and wrote OTA’s comments on the USDA’s second proposed organic rule.

OTA’s new Board President, Melody Meyer, recently wrote and released a divisive, inaccurate and accusatory article entitled, “Stop the lies and get behind your National Organic Program.”

In her article, Ms. Meyer displayed an alarming lack of understanding of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule, as well as disrespect for public interest groups who have been part of the organic movement from the beginning.

For starters, Ms. Meyer stated, “In 2001 the first US organic standards were written into law after years of discussion, discovery and scientific review.” This statement is incorrect. The law, OFPA, was passed in 1990. The NOP Final Rule (which is a regulation, not a law) was released in December 2000 and took effect in October 2002.

In discussing allowed and prohibited substances on the National List, Ms. Meyer overlooks the fact that OFPA only allows the use of synthetic and non-organic substances as “exemptions.” Those exemptions are required by OFPA to sunset, or end, after 5 years, unless the allowances are reviewed and renewed by the NOSB, which has statutory authority over the content of the National List.

Ms. Meyer states, “All that’s changed is it now takes two thirds majority to vote to list and two-thirds to delist. ”

That is a huge change, and one that does not comply with the OFPA’s clear language regarding the powers of the NOSB to determine substances and annotations on the National List; OFPA’s sunset provisions; and the need for any action of the Board to be based on a 2/3 majority “decisive vote.”

Despite the NOP’s new directive, OFPA (the law) has not changed. Substances sunset from the National List unless they are reviewed and renewed by a decisive 2/3 vote of the NOSB. In order for listings to be legally valid, they need to be renewed following an affirmative vote of the Board. Any substance renewed by a less than 2/3 affirmative vote will certainly be subject to legal challenge.

Ms. Meyer goes on to state, “Elsewhere the article cites the “lack of public input on this process.” This statement is, again, outrageously bogus.”

The NOP’s new directive was issued without any discussion with the Board at a public meeting. There was no vote of the Board to support the directive, and no opportunity for members of the public to offer input to the NOSB or the NOP on the directive.

This situation is analogous to the 4 “retracted directives” that were issued by the NOP in 2004, when I served on the NOSB. Those directives would have: a) allowed the labeling as “organic” of products not covered by NOP standards; b) allowed the use of antibiotics in dairy cattle to be used in organic production; c) allowed the use of fish meal in livestock feed; and d) allowed the use of pesticides with unknown inert ingredients. They were issued with no NOSB consultation or public comment.

After public outcry, USDA Sec. Anne Veneman intervened, ordered the directives withdrawn, and ordered staff to work in close consultation with the NOSB on future draft rules, policies and directives. It appears that those lessons have been forgotten. Consulting with the NOSB on implementing OFPA is required by law.

Finally, Ms. Meyer suggests that persons with concerns “reach out to the NOP directly. They are always available to answer questions and concerns.” Not! The NOP’s website is not even operational during the shutdown!

Due to the divisiveness and inaccuracy of the new OTA President’s comments, I have decided to allow my OTA membership to expire.

Though I disagreed, I have maintained my OTA membership as OTA has tried to push through a new tax (checkoff) on all certified organic operations to fund an organic promotion program, instead of looking for creative ways to capture support dollars from retailers and consumers who benefit from organic production.

I have maintained my OTA membership, even though I have seen my trade association place its lobbying strength and resources to pass an organic checkoff referendum while programs that benefit organic producers, such as the national organic certification cost share and the organic research and extension initiative, have gone unfunded.

I have remained a member when I have seen OTA advocate for the allowance of questionable artificial (i.e. synthetic) additives used in organic food production and processing.

But the positions taken and attitude displayed by the OTA’s new president are too much. I cannot, in good conscience, renew my OTA membership.


Jim Riddle

Organic Independents LLP

Winona, MN


About the Author(s)

Francis Thicke