(OrganicEye, January 24, 2021) Continuing a trend well established by prior Republican and Democratic administrations, the five new members recently appointed by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) all have a current or past relationship with the industry’s major lobby group, the Organic Trade Association (OTA).
Over the past decade, Big Food has consolidated ownership of most of the largest and best-known organic brands. At the same time, many have criticized USDA for “stacking” the board, which is charged with guiding the regulatory oversight of organic farming and food production, with members from, or friendly to, corporate agribusiness interests.
OrganicEye, the investigative arm of Beyond Pesticides, has issued an industry briefing paper profiling the five newly appointed members of the NOSB with a focus on their relationship to corporate agribusiness and the industry’s powerful lobby group, the Organic Trade Association (OTA).
The NOSB was established when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act as part of the 1990 farm bill. The board was created to ensure that the voice of organic farmers and consumers drove the direction of USDA’s organic program when there was grave concern about handing over the budding organic farming movement to federal conventionally focused agriculture bureaucrats and the corrupting influence of corporate lobbyists.
“It is our job as the organic community to keep the board and USDA accountable to the standards of the law and to uphold the integrity of the organic label. We seek to ensure accountability to have the law work as it was intended by the drafters,” said Mark A. Kastel, Director of Washington-based OrganicEye, which acts as an industry watchdog and investigative group.
Because of the challenge of limiting corporate influence, some never thought it was advisable to give the authority to USDA to oversee the organic label in the first place. “I was one of the cautionary voices warning my fellow pioneering organic farmers against trusting the federal government,” said Eliot Coleman, prominent Maine farmer and well-known author. “As predicted, USDA collusion allowed the profiteers and the deceptive marketers to take over the NOSB. The risk of fraud is now the order of the day. Us old-time organic growers, whose dedication to quality and integrity created the popularity of the organic label in the first place, must now demand an end to this charade.”
USDA has been accused of violating the spirit and letter of the law establishing the NOSB and has been the subject of lawsuits from those seeking to uphold the integrity of the National Organic Program at USDA. An early lawsuit challenged USDA’s allowance of synthetic ingredients in organic-labelled processed food. More recently, USDA was sued for appointing agribusiness executives to NOSB seats earmarked for farmers. An additional lawsuit challenged the legality of changing the requirement that a supermajority of the board was required to re-approve all synthetic and nonorganic ingredients and inputs used in organic production when they sunset every five years.
In response to the lawsuits accusing USDA of undermining the authority of the NOSB, corporate lobbyists and administration officials went to Congress, after the fact, to legalize their illegitimate conduct, said Mr. Kastel.
“Lobbying of Congress by USDA and powerful organic interests, in an effort to legitimize their illegal activities, confirms our allegations that collusion between USDA and corporate lobbyists undermined the authority Congress vested in the expert 15-member, diverse, industry stakeholder group,” added Mr. Kastel.
OrganicEye’s Mr. Kastel said that the organization would assume all new NOSB members will carry out their duties objectively, to serve the overall public, and will not criticize any of the individuals until their established voting record demonstrates a basis for concern. However, because of the history of USDA support for Big Food, ties to OTA, and the lack of background of some new members with organic principles, advocates are deeply concerned that the balance envisioned in the federal organic law —to bring together on the NOSB the rich diversity of the organic community and industry—will not be achieved.
New appointees include Nathan Powell-Palm, a large organic farm operator from Montana (farmer seat); Kimberly Huseman, an employee of the nation’s second-largest conventional poultry processor, Pilgrim’s Pride (handler); Gerald D’Amore, a produce industry consultant with ties to some of the industry’s largest conventional grower-marketers (handler); Mindee Jeffery, a longtime employee in natural food groceries (retailer); and Wood Turner, VP of an investment capital firm and former executive with Dannon/Stonyfield, the nation’s largest organic yogurt producer (environmentalist/conservationist).
The industry has been in the same position before, watching USDA officials bypass eminently qualified candidates who have applied for seats on the NOSB, instead choosing agribusiness-connected candidates oftentimes with a very minimal history of involvement in the organic movement.
Because of the dubious voting records of some corporate employees appointed to the NOSB, OrganicEye and Beyond Pesticides have created a link to a letter where, in less than two minutes, organic stakeholders can send a clear message to the CEOs who employ all current members of the board stating that we will, in the marketplace, hold them responsible if their employees undermine organic principles and betray our values.
In the past, staffers employed by prominent brands such as Horizon, Whole Foods, Earthbound Farms, Smucker’s, and Driscoll’s, as well as the OTA and CCOF, were accused of aligning with corporate lobbyists, instead of voting in the public interest, while sitting on the NOSB.
“As I have done in the past, OrganicEye just filed a request, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), for the application packages of all nominees to the board,” Mr. Kastel stated. “We will update our report with anything we learn and also identify the qualified applicants who the political appointees at the USDA decided to pass over.”
OrganicEye and its leadership have been critical of the USDA National Organic Program’s ineffective enforcement oversight and have called out the OTA for heaping praise on the anemic program, while simultaneously lobbying to loosen the organic regulatory standards, resulting in hydroponic (soilless) produce production, livestock factories, and copious amounts of imported feed and ingredients of dubious pedigree flooding the market.
“After serving five years on the National Organic Standards Board myself,” said Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides, “I have witnessed how cards are stacked against independent voices. OrganicEye’s research is designed to empower industry stakeholders, so we can put pressure on our governmental officials and on brands that betray true organic values in the marketplace.”
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.