RAFI supports partner orgs in reaction to USDA’s gutting of organic ‘sunset’ policy

This week, four of our National Organic Coalition partners released a statement condemning a USDA announcement that guts national organic law and circumvents public process.

As RAFI, we express our full support for the details outlined in the statement (see below).

RAFI Just Foods Director Michael Sligh was founding chair of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a Federal Advisory Committee that advises the USDA on national organic policy. The current board includes four farmers, three environmentalist and conservationist representatives, three consumer/public interest advocates, two processors, one retailer, one scientist and one USDA-accredited certifying agent.

Full public transparency and the balance and sharing of responsibilities were embedded in the inception of the board to ensure farmer and customer confidence while allowing for a federal home.

In the late 1980s, the organic industry was in its infancy. The USDA was not in favor of legislation and organic advocates also worried about entrusting the definition of “organic” to a federal agency.

In 1990, we helped establish the Organic Foods Production Act, in which a statute was explicitly crafted to ensure fair, balanced, public and accountable processes. The NOSB makes up the diverse citizen body to ensure that all voices are at the table. We sought to find solutions to grow the interstate and international trade of organic foods while ensuring consumer confidence; to ensure consistency of oversight and standards; and to create, maintain and afford a trustworthy, ongoing forum for setting these standards, with full public participation and community confidence.

The USDA’s current decision to change the process for exempting otherwise prohibited substances (like synthetics) in food labeled “organic” or “made with organic” completely undermines our principles as well as current NOSB policy.

The NOSB created a transparent policy in 2005, yet this recent USDA decision was provided without a public comment period. Under federal organic law, the “sunset policy” allowed for a controlled process to permit the use of new, un-evaluated substances as exemptions to be made in a five-year period.

The NOSB was empowered as the final decision-maker on what could be included in the national list of approved materials. The USDA Secretary could remove a material if proven to be harmful, but not add to the list. This recent decision overhauls that policy and would allow for a substance to be added by USDA without NOSB approval or public comment.

“The initial policy was part of continuous quality improvement,” says RAFI Just Foods Directory and NOSB founding chair Michael Sligh. “It was meant to send signals to the organic market and research communities to develop materials that were more compatible. This has always required a full board vote in public meetings with federal register notice and full public ‘sunshine.’”

To read the full statement, compiled by NOC partners Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides and the Center for Food Safety, see below.