Organics: New Board Members, New Questions

People are still reacting to the “directives” from the National Organic Program (including columns in CG for July-August and September-October). However, there needs to be attention paid and action taken concerning the issues of the day rather than the past.

As with all reports, the directives, although “rescinded,” may be used by NOP for legal interpretation, and along with all the other problems this may bring, it takes time for things to go to court—in most cases lots of time. But in the mid-October there is a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting that carries an agenda addressing the burning issues of today. Even the composition of our NOSB is changing soon. We need to focus now on what we can do to improve the future and on how to make effective, informed comment that has the potential to create change for the better.
 

New board members

 

Issues at hand include a five-member change in NOSB that is scheduled to take place in January. Historically the new appointments have been late, so one might expect (but not be assured of) the current NOSB functioning until spring of 2005. That said, it is not time to rest but to act to support the nominees you feel are the right representatives for your aspect of the business.This is especially important for retailers because their representative (and current chairman of the NOSB) is Mark King, who has done a stellar job of leading the board in the past few years. At this time, the author has not been able to find a list of all of the nominees.

National Organic Standards Board appointments are highly political—probably more so these days than in the beginning. Any current nominee that you feel will best represent you and/or your aspect of the business will need letters of support—from you, your congressmen and women, your senators, and any groups that you feel would be helpful including the Organic Trade Association, farm organizations and unions, and cooperatives.

Retailer representatives have been hard to find. The job takes a great deal of commitment and time—time being the most precious commodity to most retailers. Beyond this, there is no pay for the huge job of being on NOSB. The board positions take a level of devotion that most do not have the tendency or the resources to offer. The new replacements must, in order to fulfill their responsibilities, be capable of stepping into the world of organic regulations—a new world that even the “old timers” find full of “slippery slopes” and confusing guidance and directives.

Historical perspective with regard to the NOP will be necessary for new members of the board. Catching up with all of the previous meetings is hard to do. Without proper background education among board members, we risk duplication of efforts already well done. Support the nominees of your choice, but think of what they know about the program as it is, as well as what they represent today. There are many new players in the business. Do they have the knowledge to lead us based on the language and intent of the Organic Foods Production Act, or do they simply represent a company and its needs? NOSB’s composition will lead us into the future as our link to the NOP. The board members are critical to our representation. All who are leaving the current board and those who have served in the past are worthy of our deep appreciation.

On the NOP front, Richard Mathew has been promoted to policy director, and Arthur Neil is now serving in Richard’s past position. NOP is now seriously implementing its compliance and enforcement process, and new staff includes compliance officers. Mark Bradley, previously with the accreditation branch, now works with NOP investigating problems with compliance. Both Arthur and Mark are well known in the certifier community and are very dedicated and responsive. The tone of compliance is deadly serious, however nicely presented.
 

Compliance complexities

 

For all the complaints about NOP, action is being taken when instances of noncompliance are documented. Yet the question of whether or not the regulations are being consistently applied remains unanswered. Some have sought to investigate this by asking for NOP to provide accreditation documents. As an accredited certifier, I cannot imagine what those documents could prove that would answer that question. They are legally written documents that note compliances, noncompliances, and continued improvement points. They do not show how the regs are applied “in the field.”

Consistent application of the regs would include assurance that every certifier allows synthetics only insofar as is consistent with specific use and application as stated on the National List. We know from public input at NOSB meetings that there are prohibited substances being allowed by certifiers, and we even know some of the product names and certifiers in question, yet there is no action taken against them. NOP is not ignorant of this—it is all in the transcripts of its meetings.

Consistent application of the regs would mean a consistent standard for access to the outdoors for livestock, access to pasture, whether or when an animal can be labeled organic in its lifetime, what percentage of organic feed means that the milk is organic, etc. It would mean fewer questions and more answers. Somewhere there has to be consistent guidance, consistent implementation of that guidance, more “black and white” and less gray. Without this, it is a guessing game.

One has to wonder if the inconsistency is based on the number or size of affected operations. Would Country Hen be treated the same if it were a small family farm with a few chickens? I am not making accusations or assumptions, only posing the question: does size matter? In a consistent world, it should not.
 

Legal implications

 

As we move into a more regulatory organic world—one that does offer consumer protection but at a cost—we also move into a legal world. This is a world of constantly thinking of how to cover one’s rear in case of legal action. On a business level this is an important consideration, yet it seems to offend those of us who have historically viewed organics as more than just law. With freedom comes responsibility, however, and as purveyors of food there is a reason to offer proof of quality and of meeting label claims. It is also just plain smart to know how to cover oneself legally in case of complaints or litigation. But it creates a defensive stance, a legal distance between members of the organic community—a community that needs to stand together in order to fulfill the intent of the Organic Foods Production Act.

One of the burning issues for the October NOSB meeting is the petition process to remove materials currently placed on the National List as “allowed” for use in organic production, livestock production, or processing. There is a proposed policy on “sunset” review of materials posted for comment on the NOSB meeting agenda. This policy states that “alternatives must be available” in order for a recommendation to be made to remove a substance from the National List, and it requires documentation of alternative substances, including name of manufacturers, name and address of producers using such alternatives, etc.

Under the Organic Foods Production Act and the NOP Rule, there are a number of criteria that need to be considered while petitioning for placement or removal of a material from the National List. The absence of “wholly natural substitute products” is only one of the considerations. To quote Emily Brown Rosen, previously with Organic Materials Research Institute and now a consultant to the organic industry: “The other two key criteria here are that the substance should not be harmful to human health and the environment and that the substance is consistent with organic farming and handling. If compelling reasons are shown (for instance, a substance formerly approved is found to have carcinogenic effects or is harmful to soil organisms), then it no longer meets all three criteria and should be removed from the list, whether or not an alternative exists.” The problems with the proposed policy do not end here. You can find information on this policy at www.ams.usda.gov/nosb/meetings/SunsetOct04Meeting.pdf

Information and updates are available, as always, on the NOP website. Should any readers have questions, I also invite them to contact me at [email protected]. There are several folks who attend NOSB meetings who will be happy to convey your comments. Working together, with informed public comment, we can keep organics real and accountable.

See other articles from this issue: #115 November - December - 2004