Organic Rulemaking is Quite a Spectator Sport

Anyone who believes that the rules governing organic food are developed by some type of secret cabal has probably never attended a meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board.

When Congress enacted the Organic Foods Production Act 24 years ago, it established a 15-member citizen advisory board comprised of farmers, retailers, consumers, and others to help oversee the new organic law. In some instances, this National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) advises the USDA on specific standards for organic food production and marketing. In other areas, the USDA simply cannot act to change the rules without prior approval from the NOSB.

The members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, and serve rotating five-year terms. The current board includes representatives ranging from a major natural foods retailer to the Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides, a citizen activist group. The chair, Mac Stone, manages a diversified community supported agriculture farm in central Kentucky

Mac and the other members of NOSB gathered in San Antonio, TX this week to spend three days sifting through regulatory issues, and gathering public comments on topics ranging from farmed fish to essential amino acids for poultry.

Pretty dry stuff, huh?

Not exactly.

The meeting this week kicked off with a shouting, singing demonstration that required some gentle assistance from the San Antonio police force. Roughly one-third of the meeting then was dedicated to gathering public input from the more than 125 citizens in the audience (along with a lot of written testimony that was submitted on-line).

Some of the recommendations drafted by the NOSB may ultimately become a part of the federal regulation. Before that happens, the recommendations will be drafted by staff at USDA and published in the federal register for additional public input.

It’s a very, very cumbersome process. And that’s good. The organic seal represents some very strong ideals on how food should be produced, processed and packaged. That is something that shouldn’t be easily tinkered with.

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