With the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the National Organic Standards Board or NOSB was created to help regulate USDA organic label standards. The Board's responsibilities include reviewing and developing the National List, which indicates the non-certified organic substances that are allowed in organic food, as well as voting on policies like the animal welfare standards from this past April.
Understanding how the NOSB works, then, is an essential part of being an active member of the organic community, so with that in mind, here are five things you should know about the Board.
1. It was designed as a volunteer board representing the organic industry.
The NOSB is made up of 15 volunteers from across the organic community. Members include four who own or operate an organic farm, one who owns or operates a retail establishment with significant organic trade, three with expertise in environmental protection and resource conservation, three who represent public interest or consumer interest groups, one with expertise in toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry, and one who is a USDA accredited certifying agent.
Each member is appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for a five-year term.
Members are not paid for their service. They generally meet twice a year at meetings that are free and open to the public, but their work goes much further than that.
“It’s a big job,” says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the organic watchdog group the Cornucopia Institute. “They volunteer to be on this board, and without compensation, for 20 hours of work a week, maybe.”
2. Passing anything is extremely complicated.
The Board is tasked with making recommendations to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, but actually settling on a recommendation is a complicated process that requires a supermajority: a two-thirds majority vote.
“The organic community wanted it that way,” explains Kastel. “That was an attempt to push this board towards consensus.”
That said, in recent years, this desire for consensus has been tainted.
In September 2013, the USDA decided to abandon the sunset provision of the placement of substances on the National List. Before 2013, substances that were not certified organic but that, it was decided, would nonetheless be allowed in organic foods – things like artificial food coloring or carrageenan (a seaweed used as a thickener) – were only placed on the List for a period of five years. After these five years, the hope was that there would either be an organic alternative or science would have proven that the substance was dangerous. Either way, it would be required that the board vote again to put the substance back on the list.
The abandonment of this provision was heavily challenged but to no avail: now, items remain on the List unless the Board achieves a supermajority to remove them, thus allowing potentially dangerous substances like carrageenan, which has been linked to gastrointestinal problems, or simply substances for which there is a certified organic substitute, to remain in organic foods.
“We now live in the land of the midnight sun,” says Kastel. “There is no sunset.”
3. The NOSB’s complete control is limited to synthetic compounds.
The NOSB has complete control over whether synthetic compounds make it into organic food: the law clearly states that the Secretary cannot add anything to the National List without first receiving recommendation from the board.
But when it comes to natural substances, things are a bit hazier: whereas every synthetic material is banned in organics until it's approved by the NOSB, Kastel explains, "Every natural material is legal for use in organics unless it's specifically banned.”
Just last month, for example, whey protein concentrate was added back to the National List, despite being made from milk from conventional dairies. While the NOSB had unanimously voted to remove the powder from the list, the Organic Trade Association (the organic industry's largest lobby group) had requested that it remain on the list; the OTA’s request was granted.
“The Act wasn’t written perfectly,” says Kastel. “We would rewrite it today to make the NOSB a little more powerful.”
4. The board is mostly controlled by big business and lobby groups.
While the composition of the board is controlled by Congress, there has been an historic tendency to take the different categories of volunteer quite lightly – even bordering on "horrible abuse," according to Kastel.
One case from recent history involves Carmela Beck, a full-time employee of Driscoll’s, occupying a farmer-designated seat, despite being, not a farmer, but a grower liaison at the organic berry company, which does not actually grow any of its organic fruit.
“In her last year on the board, she was named member of the year by the OTA for her lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill,” notes Kastel, who also notes that her presence on the board likely helped further the hydroponic and container farm agenda within the organic industry.
This is only one instance in which lobby groups and big corporations were able to sway the board to their advantage. In 2005, a full-time employee of General Mills was appointed to the consumer public interest representative seat.
“The composition of this board is so important,” says Kastel, noting that the current board is “more polarized than it's been in the past,” with corporate votes tending to be more sympathetic to the demands of the OTA holding more than half of the seats, outnumbering smaller voices.
5. You can find out how members vote.
Meetings of the NOSB are public, but if you can’t make the trip every time, there’s an easy way to see how members vote: via the Cornucopia Institute’s voting scorecard. This scorecard breaks down how each individual member of the board votes as well as offering the final verdict.
Staying abreast of how the board is voting – and why – is key to remaining an active member of the organic community.
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