For four days last week in Stowe, Vermont, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) carefully weighed input from the public and steadily worked through that heaping plate of issues, in the process unanimously approving two petitions by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) to tighten organic standards and in the end crafting an improved set of guidelines to steer the U.S. organic industry.
"The organic industry is a good steward of the National List that defines the limited non-organic materials the industry is allowed to use," said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of OTA. "A key goal of OTA is to help the industry innovate so it can use the best and least-toxic technology in the food system."
"This NOSB meeting showed the advances that have been made in organic practices that enable the use of fewer and fewer synthetic inputs, while defending the judicious use of non-organic tools where necessary. It showed the increased dialogue between the organic community, regulators and the public. The standards for organic are transparent, and constantly improving, and this meeting was proof of that," said Batcha.
An unprecedented 11 materials were recommended by the Board for removal from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, the set of stringent guidelines that the organic industry must abide by. Once these recommendations are approved by the National Organic Program, these materials, beginning in 2017, will no longer be used in producing, processing or handling organic food.
Among the materials to be removed from the National List is lignin sulfonate, a floating agent once used in the handling of organic pears. OTA had petitioned for the removal of this substance after it contacted organic pear packers and found they were no longer using this material because they have replaced it with other approved flotation substances, or have modernized their packing lines. For a material to be on the National List, it must be necessary for organic production. OTA petitioned that it no longer met those criteria.
Also unanimously approved by NOSB was an OTA petition to revise the current listing of natural flavors to require the use of organic flavors when they are commercially available in the necessary quality, quantity or form. "In 2015, when over 2,000 certified organic flavors are available, certified operators simply need to be required to use organic flavors if they are available," OTA's Gwendolyn Wyard, Senior Director for Regulatory and Technical Affairs, told NOSB in commenting on the petition.
NOSB meets twice a year in a public forum to hear comments on organic regulations and other issues and to decide whether to remove or keep materials on the National List, or to add any new substances. In what is known as the Sunset Review process, every material on the National List must be reviewed and voted upon every five years to stay or be taken off the List.
Among the other materials recommended by NOSB to be removed from the List were non-organic Chipotle chili peppers used as an ingredient in some organic processed foods, non-organic dill weed oil used for products such as dill pickles, and non-organic whey protein concentrate which is a by-product of cheese making and used as a dietary supplement. NOSB also voted unanimously to deny two petitions seeking to add substances to the National List. Sulfuric acid used to solubilize micronutrients and brown seaweed extracts will remain prohibited for use in organic crop production.
A capacity audience of organic stakeholders from throughout the United State and beyond participated in this semi-annual meeting. One of the substances appropriately renewed for continued use was ethylene, which is used to regulate pineapple flowering. Ethylene was first approved for limited use in organic in 1999. Organic pineapple growers, producer coops, and exporters from Costa Rica gave compelling testimony to NOSB on how necessary limited, judicious use of ethylene gas is for them to supply pineapples to foreign markets. They said that in order to harvest adequate quantities of pineapples at similar ripeness, they must first coordinate the flowering of the pineapple plants, and ethylene is the only substance available to accomplish this. Growers both small and large indicated the need for continuing to use this substance. According to their comments, Costa Rica supplies 98% of organic pineapples to the U.S.
Some non-organic substances may be necessary to safely produce and process and organic product, said Wyard. A key part of the public review process is to make sure these essential materials stay on the National List until alternatives are developed.
OTA stays in close contact with its members to keep current on the use and necessity of various substances on the list, and to help develop and identify organic alternatives to those materials. OTA has just formed a National List Innovation Working Group made up of OTA members to invest in research to identify and develop alternatives to inputs on the list.
The first project of the National List Innovation Working Group will look at the development of organically grown celery or other vegetables used in the curing of organic meat products. Celery powder is a key preservative in the curing of meats, but organic celery powder is not as effective in curing as non-organic celery powder. While organic stakeholders would like to remove non-organic celery powder from its toolbox, an appropriate alternative needs to be developed first. The OTA working group will enable and promote the development of that alternative.
OTA distributed a comprehensive NOSB Resource Booklet for organic farmers and manufacturers in advance of the meeting. The publication details OTA's final comments to the Board – shaped by member input – and explains what's at stake for organic stakeholders now and down the line towards NOP rulemaking. OTA also tweeted a play-by-play of the oral comments and Board deliberations along with vote details to its almost 50,000 followers from @organictrade using the hashtag #NOSB.