By Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador, OMRI
At OMRI we are often asked why we consider one material to be allowed for organic use, while a similar material might be prohibited. Sometimes an applicant will even try to persuade us to accept a specific ingredient that, from their perspective, should be allowed in organics. Decisions regarding allowed and prohibited materials actually rely on a much larger process and more stakeholders than just OMRI.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a volunteer board comprised of representatives from various sectors of the organic industry, work year-round to discuss the pros and cons of each material proposed for organic use. The board meets twice yearly to vote on final recommendations to the National Organic Program (NOP). It is then the NOP which chooses to begin the rulemaking process in accordance with an NOSB recommendation to allow the material or not.
According to the U.S. National Organic Standards, synthetic ingredients are generally prohibited. However, there are some exceptions and the “National List” of Allowed and Prohibited Materials details these exceptions. Similarly, all non-synthetic ingredients are allowed in organics, with a few exceptions also noted in the National List.
The NOSB has two separate procedures for keeping the National List current with changing practices and technology. First, each material on the list is re-evaluated on a regular 5-year schedule through the “Sunset” process. This process was recently clarified in an NOP memo, and I will summarize the clarified procedure here. However, the NOP website also includes a lot more detail, including FAQs and a list of upcoming Sunset review materials.
Ahead of each NOSB meeting the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the department responsible for overseeing the work of the NOP, announces the Sunset materials to be discussed. The NOP accepts public comments about these materials directly before the meeting, and there is also time during the meeting to hear oral comments. No action is taken during this first meeting; it is simply a time to discuss the material and ask any questions. The appropriate subcommittee then works to answer any questions and prepares a recommendation for the final vote during the subsequent meeting. See Figure 1 below for a graphic representation. Any change to the status quo (i.e., removing a material from the National List) requires a 2/3 majority vote of the full NOSB.
Figure 1: Sunset review process
Changes to the National List can also occur as a result of the petition process. Unlike the Sunset review, the petition process can potentially add new materials to the National List or even change the annotation for a specific material. The petitioner could be any individual or organization. The NOP accepts the petition, solicits public comments and manages all communication with petitioners. Petitions are part of the public record, and all petitions are available on the NOP website. The NOSB reviews the petition based on specific criteria as follows:
1) Potential of the substance for detrimental chemical interactions with other materials used in organic farming systems;
2) Toxicity and mode of action of the substance and of its breakdown products or any contaminants, and the persistence and areas of concentration in the environment;
3) Probability of environmental contamination during manufacture, use, misuse or disposal of such substance;
4) Effect of the substance on human health;
5) Effects of the substance on biological and chemical interactions in the agroecosystem, including the physiological effects of the substance on soil organisms (including the salt index and solubility of the soil), crops and livestock;
6) Alternatives to using the substance in terms of practices or other available materials; and
7) Compatibility with a system of sustainable agriculture.
Petitions describe the manufacturing process from the source of the material to the final substance; the chemical properties of the substance, including the effect on human and environmental health; and any regulatory relevance, such as rulings by the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or other government agencies. More information, including a petition submission form and a list of petitioned materials, is available from the NOP website.
There has been considerable discussion over how a petitioner might include proprietary information while keeping it confidential and the materials subcommittee recently submitted a recommendation on this topic. The agenda for the upcoming spring NOSB meeting will include discussion of that recommendation.
By the people, for the people
Subcommittees of the NOSB meet throughout the year to discuss both petitions and materials up for Sunset review, and to create recommendations. Recommendations are sometimes revised during NOSB discussion and the appropriate subcommittee has the option to either call for a vote on the final recommendation or withdraw it for further work by the subcommittee. Approved recommendations are forwarded to the NOP for consideration and potential rulemaking. It is possible that the NOP may reject an NOSB proposal but these instances are fairly rare and often involve some conflicting legislation or legal limitation. Both the Sunset process and the petition process focus on extensive public comment, and require a 2/3 majority vote to approve any changes.
In some cases, the NOSB may decide that they need more information before they can make a decision about a material. In these cases, the NOSB may request a Technical Report (TR). The NOP handles production of these reports by contracting the work to qualified organizations. In 2012, the NOP selected three organizations, including OMRI, to bid on and produce TRs. OMRI was selected in the Fall of 2013 to produce five TRs for petitioned materials. We appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the process! Check the OMRI website for updates as the TRs are reviewed and posted for the public.
Although the NOSB is a volunteer board, they do rely on government funding and the NOP to sponsor their meetings. Meetings move to different locations around the country to encourage participation of all organic stakeholders. Unfortunately, the 2013 fall meeting was cancelled due to the government shutdown. All agenda items will roll over to the spring meeting, so we can expect a packed agenda for San Antonio, Texas this April 29-May 1!
Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador holds a B.S. from Oregon State University in Natural Resource Management and an M.S. from University of Florida in Geography. She has over 10 years of work experience on both conventional and organic farms in Oregon. Her graduate research thesis examined market conditions that contribute to small organic farm success. Through this research she became familiar with organic standards and issues facing organic farmers. Prior to attending graduate school, she worked as a forest technician and GIS technician. She has lived and worked in Latin America, and is fluent in Spanish. She has been with OMRI since 2009.