The appointment of two industry representatives to National Organic Standards Board slots reserved for consumer/public interest representatives has raised new questions about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commitment to enforce legal requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and protect the integrity of the NOSB.
The agency’s latest controversial move was the appointment of Katrina Heinze, manager of global regulatory affairs for General Mills, and dairy nutrition consultant Daniel Giocomini to two of the three legally-defined consumer and public interest slots on the NOSB. The organic law also reserves slots for three environmental representatives, four organic farmers, two organic processors, one retailer, one scientist, and one certifying agent representative. The two industry representatives were among six new members named in January to 5-year terms on the 15-member advisory group.
This is not the first time USDA has failed to follow specific NOSB-related OFPA requirements or taken other actions to challenge or diminish its authority. The most important action came in 1997 when the agency ignored many of the NOSB’s recommendations and overturned many others in proposing the first rule to implement OFPA. Another came two years ago when USDA bypassed the NOSB and announced a set of controversial directives that then Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman was later forced to rescind.
Since most new members soon discover serving on the NOSB is much like taking on a part-time unpaid job, the organic community should be grateful that qualified individuals are willing to accept the demanding workload and responsibilities involved. But industry influence in the organic sector is growing and making sure appointments maintain the balance of interests specified in the law is crucial. It is especially important this year as the NOSB faces difficult rulemaking challenges involving access to pasture and implementation of newly-enacted amendments relating to synthetics and commercial availability.
Public interest and consumer groups, angered by the Heinze and Giocomini appointments, immediately launched a campaign to force USDA to rescind the appointments. The campaign, led by Urvashi Rangan of Consumers Union, included a letter to Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns complaining that the two new appointees clearly represented industry interests rather than the interests of consumers and the public.
“As strong supporters of a public National Organic Program and the diverse but distinct roles defined by law for the NOSB,” the joint consumer organization letter stated, “we urge you to reconsider these appointments and to take the time to find individuals whose sole purpose is to represent consumers and who have no stake in the sale of any one organic product.”
All of the leading consumer organizations that have a continuing interest in organic farming, in a rare cooperative effort, rallied behind this national public protest. Joining Consumers Union were the Center for Food Safety, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Organic Consumers Association, Food and Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides, and Public Citizen.
Johanns was told in the joint letter that the issues involved in the appointment went beyond whether Heinze and Giocomini reflected industry interests instead of the specific interests of consumers or the public. It also was important, they contended, that the appointments compromised the veracity of the consumer/public interest positions.
“These individuals may be appropriate to serve in industry-related slots on the NOSB but it is misleading to have them represent the interests of consumers and the public interest,” the letter said. “We believe that these positions need to be filled by those who are working directly on behalf of consumers and the public and not by those who benefit financially from the organic industry or from the sales of organic food to consumers.”
A short time after the consumer campaign became public, Heinze voluntarily withdrew her offer to serve. Johanns took no action on the consumer complaint, however, and Giocomini’s name remains on the official list of NOSB board members and he is expected to participate in the board meeting scheduled April 19-20 in State College, Pennsylvania. It was unclear whether Johanns would name a replacement for Heinze from the existing confidential list of applicants for the six slots filled in January or whether a new call for applications would be made.
The NOSB was written into OFPA because Congress concluded USDA did not know enough about organic food and farming to implement the law and, further, that the agency could not be trusted to provide and protect an organic guarantee. This conclusion was reinforced after USDA made an all-out, but unsuccessful, attempt on Capitol Hill to kill the legislation. The NOSB, under OFPA, is directed to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on all aspects of the National Organic Program. It also has specific responsibility for developing the National List of substances approved and prohibited for use in organic production and handling.
The attempted end run around the NOSB in 2004 involved a series of regulatory changes that became known in the organic community as the four directives. Included were changes allowing the use of fish meal with unapproved synthetics as a poultry and livestock feed, allowing organic calves treated with antibiotics and other medications to stay in organic herds, and allowing pesticides in organic production that contained unidentified harmful chemicals. These changes were not reviewed or recommended by the NOSB.
The directives were publicly rescinded in an embarrassing election year retreat by Veneman following a storm of protest that included editorials highly critical of USDA in the New York Times and elsewhere. The followup included a meeting between USDA officials, several NOSB members, and others to discuss procedural problems and try to clear the air regarding the need for a smoother working relationship between the NOSB and the National Organic Program.
The NOSB is a unique public/private partnership within USDA, unlike its many old-style advisory committees, and its poorly defined role has been diminished over the years. It has lost control over its budget, has lost most of its ability to set its own meeting agendas, and more than 50 of its recommendations made over the last six years are gathering dust. USDA has refused to acknowledge, reject, or adopt them and contends that under the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act it has no legal obligation to do so.
Although appointments to legally-designated slots on the NOSB have been a continuing problem, the most recent naming of industry representatives to two consumer/public interest slots is the first to generate strong opposition. The consumer protest helps focus attention on the need for an enforcement procedure that will prevent appointment of industry people to slots reserved for others.
This same enforcement procedure, of course, should be applied across the board. Bill Welsh, a highly-respected Iowa organic farmer, was named to an environmental slot several years ago and served out his term with no questions asked. Others with weak links to environmental organizations also have served in these slots. Rebecca Goldberg of the Environmental Defense Fund is the only appointee from a recognized national environmental organization who has ever been named to one of the three environmental slots.
Jim Riddle, an organic inspector and public policy analyst, was named five years ago to the certifying agent representative slot even though he had no official connection with a certification organization. However his appointment was well received by certification organizations and others in the organic community, he was an unusually active NOSB member, and he served as NOSB chair in the final year of his term. The new appointee to this slot is Joseph Smillie of Quality Assurance International (QAI), a USDA-accredited certifier.
The Organic Committee of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture several years ago proposed membership criteria and NOSB appointment guidelines in the form of an NOSB resolution. The NOSB, at a meeting in 1998, had expressed a desire to have an active role in the appointment of NOSB members. No official action has ever been taken, however, to respond to either the NOSB’s interest or the detailed 4-page Campaign proposal.
For the three consumer and public interest slots, for example, the Campaign proposal would require an applicant to have the endorsement of “two or more recognized, national consumer or public interest organizations” plus a minimum of five years of active involvement in consumer education, advocacy, and/or protection issues. The USDA, in calling for nominations, usually states that applicants for the consumer and public interest slots should have consumer and public interest organization support.
Unfortunately, consumer organizations had to fight alone in January in their attempt to protect their legally-defined slots on the NOSB. This attempt by USDA to put industry representatives in slots legally allocated to other interest groups should be a warning to organic farmers, who have four slots of their own to protect. Maintaining the balance of interests provided by OFPA through the specific allocation of membership slots is critical to protecting the interests of organic farmers when rules and materials decisions are made. This, plus other problems relating to the integrity of the NOSB, should command a much higher level of interest and political watchdogging in the organic farming community in the future.
by Roger Blobaum
This article was first printed in the May/June 2006 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service