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USA: Groups challenge major change to organic rule

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Organic stakeholders have filed a lawsuit in federal court, maintaining that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated the federal rulemaking process when it changed established procedures for reviewing the potential hazards and need for allowed synthetic and prohibited natural substances used in producing organic food, the Organic Consumers Association reports. A coalition of fifteen organic food producers and farmer, consumer, environmental and certification groups asked the court to require USDA to reconsider its decision on the rule change and reinstitute the agency's customary public hearing and comment process.

The organic market that is worth over US$35 billion in the USA relies heavily on a system of public review and input regarding decisions that affect organic production systems and the organic label. The multi-stakeholder National Organic Standards Board (NOSP) holds semi-annual meetings to solicit public input and to write recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture on organic policy matters, including the allowance of synthetic and non-organic agricultural materials and ingredients.

The unilateral agency action taken to adopt major policy change without a public process, the plaintiffs maintain, violates one of the foundational principles and practices of Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) - public participation in organic policy-making. In adopting the OFPA, Congress created standards for organic certification and established the NOSB to oversee the allowance of synthetic materials based on a determination that they do not cause harm to human health and the environment and are necessary in organic food production and processing, given a lack of alternatives, according to the Organic Consumers Association. Under the law, a review of these materials takes place on a five year cycle, with a procedure for relisting if consistent with OFPA criteria. Plaintiffs in this case maintain that the USDA organic rule establishes a public process that creates public trust in the USDA organic label.

At issue in the lawsuit is a rule that implements the organic law's "sunset provision," which since its origins has been interpreted to require all listed materials to cycle off the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances every five years unless the NOSB votes by a two-thirds majority to relist them. In making its decision, the NOSB is charged with considering public input, new science, and new information on available alternatives. In September, 2013, in a complete reversal of accepted process, USDA announced a definitive change in the rule it had been operating under since the inception of the organic program without any public input.  Now, materials can remain on the National List in perpetuity unless the NOSB takes initiative to vote it off the list. The full article as well as further information is available here.

 

 


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