Public Input to the National Organic Standards Board 1993

Statement by Roger Blobaum, Public Input Session, National Organic Standards Board, Kutztown, Pennsylvania
May 16, 1993

Mr. Chairman and members of the board, my name is Roger Blobaum and I have a small consulting firm that provides professional services to organic and sustainable agriculture organizations.  I have been involved in the development of organic agriculture since 1972.  My first organic client, in fact, was the Rodale Press and I feel more than a little nostalgic in this setting.

I speak only for myself in making this statement.  I requested a few minutes of your time because I am aware of questions being raised about the implementation process, by what I sense may be the beginning of a breakdown of good will among organizations and constituencies that came together in 1990 and pushed this legislation through a reluctant Congress, by statements I feel do not represent the priorities of the national consumer and environmental organizations that were part of that effort, and by suggestions that the Organic Food Production Act should be opened up for amendment or repealed outright.

None of us realized in 1989 how difficult it would be to bring organic farmers and the federal government together in a joint organic standards effort.  In many ways it is like a shotgun wedding between two reluctant and mutually suspicious parties that has gotten off to a rocky start. The organic food industry and a coalition of consumer, environmental and other organizations, to carry this analogy a step further, have held the shotgun. You are challenged to try to bring happiness and bliss to this relationship.

Throughout the period of debate on the 1990 farm bill, I was co-chair of the Organic Food Act Working Group, which was made up of more than 25 national consumer, environmental, animal welfare, and other organizations that helped push this legislation through Congress. For the last two years I have chaired an implementation working group made up of most of the same organizations. I am stepping aside as chairman at our next meeting.  Before I do that, however, I want to share with you some things that happened in the working group in 1990, and in its relationship with the organic farming and organic industry communities, that bear on what you are asked to do.

First, I want to emphasize that the working group took the position throughout 1990 that the standards should not be so strict that only a few could meet them.  We wanted organic farming to continue to be a fast-growing sector of agriculture and we opposed proposals that would be financially burdensome to growers.  I would urge you to apply that same test to what you do here.

We felt the new law would help overcome marketplace barriers created by the patchwork of more than 20 different state programs.  We developed a warm working relationship with organic groups working on the legislation and learned a lot from them about organic food and farming during this period. We worked together in trying to educate members of Congress who, for the most part, knew little or nothing about organic food and farming.

Working group members assisted growers and organic industry representatives in trying to dispel the widespread public impression that organic food is residue-free, that synthetic and toxic inputs are never used, and that food safety and nutrition claims are fully documented.  These organizations, in doing this, became familiar with audit trails, permitted and prohibited inputs, certification, and the difference between a content claim and a production claim.

This joint effort was viewed by national consumer organizations, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which I represented, as an opportunity to develop a relationship built on trust and mutual interest with organic growers and the organic food industry.  One result of this effort was the willingness of several organizations in the working group to abandon efforts to write in authority to file citizen suits to assure strict enforcement of standards, to emphasize residue testing in verifying compliance, to prohibit use of all toxic botanicals, and to ban synthetic inputs under all circumstances.

The legislation that took shape was the result of many tradeoffs. I emphasized in testifying for the bill that we felt it struck a balance between strong national standards that guarantee the integrity of the organically-grown label and the ability of organic farmers to meet them, between the authority given to USDA to implement a program and the constraints needed to prevent any weakening by the government of the standards organic farmers had developed over the years and imposed on themselves, and between the need to have, some government involvement in accreditation and the need to guarantee the independent status of existing certifiers.

I emphasize this because it is important now; nearly three years later, for you to be aware that this legislation was the result of an open and democratic process where all parties were at the table and consensus was reached.  It was not our intention to have an implementation process that resulted in re-invention of the wheel or created hardship for organic growers and small companies trying to build a new industry that already had strong consumer support.  The intent was to take the 90 percent of the existing standards that organic farmers had imposed on themselves, and on which all certifiers agreed, and to build on that.  The intent was to draw on the expertise of state agriculture departments and farmer-controlled organizations with a track record of running successful organic programs that enjoyed public conference.  We supported an implementation process that filled in the blanks and little more and I would urge you to do that to the extent possible.

I am concerned that the integrity of the national livestock survey, and the relevance of the results that have been presented to you, are being questioned.  This would seem to be at odds with the tradition of reaching out to organic farmers for expertise. I am a member of the livestock committee that sponsored the survey, appreciate the difficulty of identifying organic producers in a sector where the sale of meat labeled as organic is not allowed, am familiar with the thorough job of combing the country for names that took place, and urge you to take full advantage of the valuable information produced. If the standards proposed to you fail to reflect the views and experience of the producers surveyed, you should reject them.  That would seem to me to be preferable to having them shot down during the rulemaking phase.

The Organic Food Production Act does have flaws and this has led some to conclude this process should be slowed down or derailed, or that the law should be repealed.  I believe these suggestions come primarily from small organic farmers who feel alienated from big government and financially threatened.  To some extent, this development may be due to lack of communication and trust in the process,  A market gardener at a meeting I spoke at recently complained bitterly about the need to begin sending all her paperwork to Washington.  Although no such requirement exists or is even being considered, she has heard this discussed and her concern is genuine.

The provision limiting the exemption from mandatory certification to growers with $5,000 or less in sales is receiving bad reviews from many small farmers.  The law is unclear and I would urge you to bend it in this case.  The purpose of certification is to assure that a consumer purchasing food labeled organic is actually getting organically-grown food. It is an essential marketplace guarantee when farmer and consumer are unknown to each other. It is not needed where the consumer knows the farmer’s operation and can deal face-to-face.  The exemption should be based on whether that relationship exists and whether the consumer is in a position to make a judgment about the integrity of the producer.

I would urge you to raise the exemption to a more realistic figure.  Another approach would be to exempt farmers who limit their marketing to direct sales they make themselves to individual consumers.  These farmers, in effect, are being peer reviewed in their own locality.  Some kind of affidavit arrangement, which also requires a consumer complaint to be answered, should be required in either case.

It is suggested by some that consumers are demanding regulations that specify in great detail exactly what organic farmers can and cannot do or use.  My experience as the former director of Americans for Safe Food suggests that consumers have little interest in, or knowledge of, the fine points of organic farming and generally trust organic farmers and are willing to leave most of the details to them. What they are really interested in is things like fraud and misrepresentation in the marketplace, and the integrity of the verification process, rather than whether or not semen comes from an organic source. These marketplace concerns stem from the lack of confidence that most consumers feel in the government’s ability to provide a safe food guarantee.

I have listed some specific verification-related issues that I believe consumers are concerned about.

Transparency is essential to ensure public trust and confidence.  You should make sure certifiers provide clear, written information that allows consumers to understand how decisions are made and make available all production standards and guidelines and internal policies and procedures.

Peer review is essential to verify certifier compliance with published policies and procedures.  You should require that certifiers be formally evaluated at 5-year intervals by independent teams that include a consumer representative.

Inspection documents must provide assurance that growers have put an organic management system in place during the 3-year pre-certification period and that prohibited inputs have not been used.

Certifiers must conduct annual compliance audits of retailers, handlers, and processors to make certain organic certification policies and procedures are being followed.  This audit is needed to ensure that raw materials and ingredients come from approved sources and that a product identification system is in place to trace the product from origin to destination.

Organic products must be clearly and accurately labeled. Consumers want the name and address of the certifying organization on the label so they can contact the certifier directly to obtain information about the integrity of the product.

Strict conflict of interest rules must be provided and strictly enforced.  A certifier must not have a financial interest in the entity being certified, accept any payment aside from the prescribed fee, or provide any consulting or other services for a fee.  The certifier also must not be involved with the direct selling or handling of a certified product.

I thank you for providing this public input opportunity. And for your patience and commitment in carrying out a most difficult ask with no compensation and little Congressional and other official support.  All of us involved in the organic movement, and the millions of consumers who will benefit from your work, are indebted to you for soldiering on in the face of many difficulties.