National Organic Program Regulations

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The 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), written by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), was enacted under Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill. The intent was to establish a set of uniform national standards for the production, handling and certification of organic foods. The act:

More specifically, the act defined the standards for organic labeling of crops, livestock and processed products and prohibited the use of non-natural farming techniques such as synthetic pesticides, genetic engineering, sewage sludge, artificial fertilizers, and non-organic feed and growth hormones in livestock and poultry.

In April 1995, the NOSB defined "organic" as follows: "Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony." 'Organic' is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole." "Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water." "Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people." [2]

With the input of over 300,000 comments the final national organic standards rule was placed in the Federal Register on December 21, 2000 and became effective April 2, 2001.[3]

Now an $11 billion industry, organics have become the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, rising at more than 20 percent a year.[4]

Recently the integrity of the organic standards came under attack when, bypassing the NOSB and the public input process, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued in mid-April, 2004, three "guidances" and one directive that would seriously dilute the intent of the organic label. These changes included allowing the use of antibiotics on organic dairy cows and synthetic pesticides on organic farms.[5]

More specifically the changes allowed:

  • Some pesticides to be used even if they contain unknown inert ingredients if a "reasonable effort" has been made to identify them. Before, the ingredients had to be approved before use.
  • Non-organic fishmeal, even if it contains a synthetic preservative or toxins, as feed for organic cattle and poultry. Before, only organic feed was allowed. The fishmeal is allowed in any quantity as a "feed supplement."
  • Antibiotics in dairy cows; calves and cows can be treated with antibiotics or any other necessary drug, if other means of helping them have failed, but a year must pass before their milk is sold as organic. Before, most dairies interpreted the rule to mean that a cow treated with antibiotics had to be removed from the herd forever (they were sold to conventional dairies), but some certifiers allowed drug use with a 12-month hold on the milk.
  • Any seafood, pet food and body care products to be called organic without meeting any standards other than their own. That's why the USDA hasn't objected to things like "organic" salmon in fish markets. Before, the three groups were included under the organic law although specific standards hadn't been written to cover them; some won organic certification by following the rules for livestock and crops.[6]

Significant changes to the organic standards must pass through a formal rulemaking process; however the USDA insisted that the changes were merely clarifications of existing standards. The organic food industry and many legislators disagreed: "Unilateral fiats like these may violate the letter of the law, and they certainly violate the spirit," Sen. Leahy said.[7]

In an article in Grist Magazine, Amanda Griscom reported: "Jim Riddle, vice chair of the NOSB and endowed chair in agricultural systems at the University of Minnesota, argues that what the USDA is trying to pass off as a clarification of regulations is actually a substantial change: 'These are the sorts of changes for which the department is supposed to do a formal new rulemaking process, with posting in the federal register, feedback from our advisory board, and a public-comment period. And yet there is no such process denoted anywhere.'"[8]

"This new directive makes a mockery of organic standards," said Richard Wood, a recent member of the FDA's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee and executive director of Food Animal Concerns Trust. "Organic farmers that we have talked to are furious because they have been very careful to follow the antibiotics rule. [The rule change] undercuts their ability to make a living doing things right."[9]

Many businesses in the pet food, seafood and body care business built their products around the promise that if they followed organic principles, they would eventually be certified. An organic shrimp farmer from Florida reportedly invested $1.5 million in raising organic fish to feed the shrimp, based on the old policy. "The new rule pulled the rug out from under him, and now anyone can call fish organic as long as they don't use the USDA's organic seal."[10]

Opposition to the rule changes garnered bi-partisan support in both the House and Senate and sent the entire organic community into an uproar. [11] The influential Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a national consumer watchdog group with over half a million supporters, immediately launched a campaign to pressure the USDA into reversing its controversial directives. According to a May 26, 2004 Information Alert from the Weston A. Price Foundation: "Within two days, over 5,000 petition signatures had been gathered and a landslide of faxes, emails and phone calls hit the USDA and NOP offices. According to Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the OCA, 'Two days after we sent our first email action alert out, their were so many consumers responding to it, the USDA contacted us and told us to tell our supporters to stop calling their offices.'" In addition, organic businesses geared up for a lawsuit against the USDA. According to the Price Foundation, "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a leading manufacturer of organic and natural body care products, released a letter to the Organic Trade Association saying that it would pay for all legal costs associated with a lawsuit against the USDA."

On May 26, 2004, it was announced that Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman had rescinded all four of the April National Organic Program directives.

Recently "Senate and House Republicans on the Agriculture appropriations subcommittee inserted a last-minute provision into the department's fiscal 2006 budget specifying that certain artificial ingredients could be used in organic food" [12].

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