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CORNUCOPIA INSTITUTE CLAIMS USDA IS WEAKENING ORGANIC STANDARDS
Source: Cornucopia Institute news release

When the organic industry gathers in this central Texas city next week sparks are predicted to fly when farmers and consumer activists face off with government regulators who they have accused of a "power grab," significantly eroding a unique public and private partnership that Congress created in the governance of organic food and agriculture.

At issue is the unilateral reversal of 20 years of precedent in the congressionally-mandated National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) effectively deciding the working definition of "organic" as a food production system and what, if any, synthetics are safe to include in organic food. The NOSB, a 15-member panel of organic stakeholders, representing farmer, consumer, environmental, retail, scientific, and food processors, will begin its Spring 2014 meeting on April 29.

"Corporate interests, including the industry lobby group the Organic Trade Association, have been gaming the system for years with the help of the USDA," alleges Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog. "What has changed recently, as a result of the NOSB refusing to go along with agribusiness in approving gimmicky synthetics and nutraceuticals in organic food, is that they have now had their minions at the USDA change the rules in the middle of the game."

In September 2013, Deputy Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) at the USDA, Miles McEvoy, issued a controversial memorandum overturning two decades of precedents in terms of the NOSB's self-governance.

The NOSB was created by Congress to be an industry advisory group with a number of specific statutory responsibilities, something that is unusual for a federal panel of this nature. The body now faces a loss of control over the setting its own work plans, agendas and policies.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), specifically states that the NOSB must approve any synthetic used in organics and must re-review these materials when they 'sunset' every five years.

"I see a clear disconnect between the successes gained by powerful economic interests in the $30 billion plus organic industry and the family-scale farmers who get their hands dirty for a living," said Kevin Engelbert, a New York dairy farmer and past member of the NOSB.

Engelbert's statement references corporate interests that are focusing their lobbying prowess on the USDA's National Organic Program and facilitating a shift to factory farm production of milk and eggs, along with an exponential increase in the importation of organic commodities from developing countries, principally China.

"We seem to be headed for an organic marketplace with two distinct branches, which will force consumers to make an extra effort to ensure that the organic brands they purchase are truly high-integrity," Engelbert added.

The Cornucopia Institute has issued a number of research reports and associated scorecards ranking organic dairy, egg, soy foods cereal and other brands based on their ethical approach to meeting organic standards.

Many groups at the San Antonio meeting, besides Cornucopia, are expected to articulate equally grave concerns about the USDA's circumvention of "congressional intent" when it comes to organic governance including the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), the National Organic Coalition and Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports magazine).

Alexis Baden, a Washington-based attorney and chief political strategist for the Organic Consumers Association, will be among organic community leaders publicly condemning the USDA for "selling-out" the interest of consumers.

"There's a lot at stake at this meeting," Baden said. "The new rules will make it very hard for citizens to influence board decisions on sunsetting materials."

One hot button issue that will be addressed by the NOSB in San Antonio is the continued use of the antibiotic streptomycin. All public interest groups representing consumers and farmers oppose its use based on human health and environmental concerns."

Although antibiotics are banned in organic livestock production, a temporary provision allow them to be sprayed on apple and pear trees to control the bacterial infection known as fireblight.

The Cornucopia Institute has spent the past few months collaborating with other groups and its legal team in determining which changes by the USDA appear to either directly violate OFPA and/or the transparent process that governs this and other federal panels.

"It's a shame that citizens and public interest groups, instead of being able to rely on USDA to do the right thing, need to go to the expense of lawyering-up to defend the rights of organic consumers, and ethical business participants," said Gary Cox, an experienced litigator who has sued the USDA twice (once on behalf of Cornucopia) is once again assisting the organization in its dispute with regulators.

"We have not quit trying to diplomatically approach the leadership at the USDA, and the Obama administration, suggesting that they have erred in undermining the powers of the NOSB to review materials for use in organic production and processing," stated Jim Riddle, an organic food producer from Minnesota who served five-years on the National Organic Standards Board, including one year as its chairman. "The new sunset policy turns existing NOSB procedures upside down."

Riddle (NOSB chairman 2005), along with other former NOSB chairman, Jeff Moyer (2009) and Barry Flamm (2012), recently sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack appealing to him to intervene to restore the power that Congress vested in the NOSB.

"The best battle is the one you don't have to fight, "observed Cornucopia's Kastel. "At this juncture we hope that Secretary Vilsack will be proactive and pull back their arbitrary and capricious changes rather than being forced to face off in court."


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