I have long been aware that the Organic Foods Production Act does not allow the use of synthetic substances in or on processed foods labeled as "organic," and that the original regulation was written contrary to the law. It was predictable that the issue would come to a head at some point.
The amendment recently passed by Congress has exposed a dilemma regarding the use of these synthetic substances. By focusing on the word "ingredients" instead of "substances," the amendment opens the door to synthetic processing aids being used in or on organic products without such substances being reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board and appearing on the National List. I am troubled by the commercial availability amendment, which gives the U.S. Departm
ent of Agriculture unprecedented authority to write rules for emergency determinations of commercial unavailability of organic ingredients, with no stated role for the NOSB.
While I support the allowance of farm-raised, third-year transitional feed for dairy farms converting to organic, the associated issue of replacement animals being managed organically after conversion should have been addressed in the amendment. The NOSB has consistently recommended that all operations should feed and manage young stock and replacement heifers organically once the operation has converted.
In the rule-making process, we must now work together to restore the powers of the NOSB over the National List; require that all substances used in or on processed organic products are subject to NOSB review; and require that all dairy replacement animals and young stock be fed and managed organically, regardless of how the operation converted to organic production.
I am heartened that all "sides" in the recent debate have upheld the authority of the NOSB. The board was established as the gatekeepers for organic integrity, and must be willing to take stands to establish -- and maintain -- rigorous standards that protect consumer and producer confidence in the organic claim. Board members must keep in mind that they are the voice of the public. The board should collaborate with the USDA whenever possible, but cannot be afraid to speak up on behalf of the organic community, as needed.
The present and future board needs to be cognizant of past NOSB recommendations and precedents; seek public comments on draft recommendations; be inclusive and transparent; and make sure that someone keeps good records and makes them available to the public in a timely manner. It should be remembered that USDA employees are public servants who need to serve the organic community, not vice versa.
In serving on the NOSB, the biggest challenge has been the failure of the USDA to implement NOSB recommendations. This situation was evident in the Office of Inspector General's report, which noted the USDA's repeated failure to consult with the NOSB. In response, the NOSB established collaboration procedures as part of the board's Policies and Procedures Manual. While I have seen the level of cooperation improve during my tenure on the board, the collaboration process needs to be maximized, since the volunteers on the NOSB are a valuable resource, underutilized by USDA.
Jim Riddle is completing a one-year term as chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, after being appointed to the panel in January 2001. He has operated an organic farm in Minnesota since 1980, and was founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association in 1991, developing organic certification standards, inspection templates and training materials that are now used worldwide.