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Changes in organic review process meet resistance

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The National Organic Program changes its procedures for sunset provisions, which it says will increase transparency in determining what substances are allowed on the national list. Opponents say it does the opposite.

Some members of the organic industry say they oppose new changes in the National Organic Program that proponents say are aimed at adding consistency to determining which substances farmers can use.

The changes, announced last week, require that two-thirds of the 15-member National Organic Standards Board support any change to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for it to be recommended to the USDA.

The board must review all substances on the list every five years. It can recommend substances be removed due to impacts on human health, the environment or other criteria under the Organic Foods Production Act.

“(The new procedure) means that the board will need a two-thirds decisive vote to remove an existing listing, rather than a two-thirds decisive vote to retain an existing listing,” Sam Jones-Ellard, public affairs specialist at the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, said. “This ensures consistency across all board recommendations related to the national list and provides increased stability for the market once something goes through the initial evaluation process.”

Organic standards are designed to allow most natural substances in organic farming while prohibiting most synthetic substances. The list of allowed and prohibited substances, part of the organic regulations, lists the exceptions to this basic rule and the non-organic substances allowed in processed organic products.

The board meets twice a year to provide a public forum on issues relating to organic production. It then makes recommendations to the NOP.

However, Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group, objected to both the change and how it was decided, saying the USDA weakened the meaning of the organic label.

“These exemptions were supposed to be made for a five-year period, in order to encourage the development of natural (or organic) alternatives,” the group said in a news release. “The exemptions were required by law to expire, known as ‘sunset,’ unless they were reinstated by a two-thirds ‘decisive’ majority vote of the NOSB and include a public review. This is no longer the case.”

It also said the NOP decision was not transparent.

“The fact that the agency made this decision without any public input only adds to the violation felt by watchdog groups and consumers alike,” the group said.

At the Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy group, policy analyst Pamela Coleman said, “The NOP claims that this rule ‘increases transparency.’ In fact, it removes decision-making from the full 15-member board and puts it in the hands of a subcommittee (approximately a third of the board members). Previously, all decisions were made in a public meeting, and all transcripts were posted for public view. This NOP decision changes that.  Now, decisions can be made in private, in the subcommittee meeting, with public unaware of the discussion.”

The NOSB at its next meeting Oct. 24-26 in Louisville, Ky., will address several petitions pertaining to changes to the National List, including glycerin, several substances for use in aquaculture and streptomycin for use to control fire blight in pears and apples. The agenda of topics and current proposals are available at www.ams.usda.gov/nosbmeetings.



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