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How can I Understand the New Regulations of Organic Foods?


Can you give me more details about federal regulation of organic farming?

Yes. Most of these details are presented in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, as discussed below.

What was the Organic Foods Production Act?

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was Title XXI of the 1990 Farm Bill. Its purpose was to establish national standards for the production and handling of foods labeled as organic.

Previously, private and State agencies had been certifying organic practices, but there was no uniformity in standards and therefore no guarantee that organic meant the same thing from state to state, or even locally from certifier to certifier. National standards for organic products were desired by both producers and consumers to clear up this confusion in the marketplace and to protect against mislabeling or fraud.

OFPA allows for state standards that are more restrictive than the federal standards, but they must be approved by the USDA. In addition, states cannot discriminate against out-of-state products that meet the federal standards.

What is the National Organic Program?

OFPA authorized the formation of a National Organic Program (NOP) to establish organic standards, and to require and oversee mandatory certification of organic production. The NOP will be implemented once the Final Rules are signed by the Secretary of Agriculture. The NOP, by statute, is administered by State and private organizations rather than by the Federal government. The USDA's role is to act as overseer of the Program.

While the NOP has required federal funding during its developmental stages, it is expected that, as with similar USDA programs, future costs will be covered by user fees paid by certifying agencies.

Currently, fees for certification are paid by growers and processors to private or state certifying agencies.

What is the National Organic Standards Board?

Under the Act, a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was created to advise the Secretary of Agriculture in setting the standards on which the USDA's National Organic Program will be based.

The NOSB wanted their recommendations to be based on industry consensus. They asked for and received an unprecedented amount of public input from farmers, businesses and consumers during every step of their decision-making process. After considering the recommendations of the NOSB, the Secretary has final authority in determining the regulations. Appointments to the NOSB are made by the Secretary of Agriculture for five year terms, and must include:

Four farmers, two handlers/processors, one retailer, one scientist (with expertise in toxicology, ecology or biochemistry), three consumer/public interest advocates, three environmentalists.

In addition to making recommendations on the national standards, the NOSB is authorized to convene Technical Advisory Panels to advise on materials to be included on a National List of materials allowed for use in organic production.

Who actually gets certified in the organic certification process?

With two exceptions (listed below), everyone who wants to sell products labeled as organic must be certified. This includes producers of organic livestock, food and fiber crops, and handlers of organic products.

A handler is any operation that receives, processes, packages, or stores agricultural products. Some examples: a processing company that buys organic tomatoes and makes canned spaghetti sauce; any distributor who substantially transforms, repacks or re-labels organic agricultural products. This last distinction is meant to exclude brokering, warehousing or trucking operations that merely store or move finished processed products from place to place without altering them in any way.

Is anyone exempt from certification?

Yes. Growers who gross less than $5,000 annually are exempt from certification. The NOSB recommends that these growers sign a declaration (available from certifying agencies) stating that they understand and are in compliance with the Act, and that they have a written Organic Farm Plan (see below), which can be made available to the public upon request. The NOSB further recommends that growers falling under this Small Farm Exemption may not use the term certified organic when marketing their crops, and may market through direct sales only (i.e., farm stands, farmers' markets, or direct sales to a retailer).

At present, retailers aren't required to be certified. The NOSB, however, recommends certification for retailers that engage in activities that qualify them as handlers. (An example: repacking bulk products such as dry beans or grain.)

How does the certification process actually work?

A grower or handler seeking organic certification submits an Organic Farm Plan or an Organic Handling Plan to a USDA-accredited private or state certification program. The Organic Plan must detail all current growing or handling methods and any materials that will be used. The Plan also covers future intentions and improvements to all areas of production.

Even growers or harvesters of organic wild crops, such as fiddlehead ferns, must develop a Plan showing that harvesting practices will not be destructive to the environment or to the future productivity of the crop.

Five-year records must be kept of all management practices and materials used in organic production.

In addition to assessing the Organic Plan, the certification agency performs annual on-site inspections of each farm or handling operation participating in its program. Certification is then either awarded or denied. User fees are collected from each grower or handler to cover the cost of the certification program.

What if a farm only wants to be part organic?

The Act does allow for only part of a farm or handling operation to be certified. The organic and conventional parts of the operation must be kept separate - whether by physical boundaries and buffer zones, in the case of a farm, or by proper cleaning and management of facilities and machinery, in the case of a handler.

Separate records must be kept for each part of a split operation. This provision can be seen as a short-term compromise. The NOSB's intent is to encourage conversion to 100% certified organic production.

What are the basic organic standards for plant crops?

Organically produced crops must be grown on land which has been free of prohibited substances for three years prior to harvest. Crops grown on land which is in transition to organic (during the first three years after switching from conventional farming, for instance) cannot be labeled as organic. The Act makes no provision for a USDA-sanctioned transitional label.

The Act covers organic agricultural methods and materials in great detail, including managing soil fertility, when and how manure may be applied to crops, crop rotation, and composting. Compost ingredients recommended by the NOSB include crop residues, crop waste from food processing operations, animal manures, yard waste from private or municipal sources, or other vegetable by-products. The NOSB recommends prohibiting municipal solid waste compost and sewage sludge compost, and the use of any prohibited material as a compost ingredient. The NOSB also recommends that all ingredients must be documented.

Prevention is considered a grower's first approach to pest management, but the Act establishes a National List of acceptable and prohibited materials, which includes pest control treatments as well as other agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and seed treatments.

The NOSB recommends that all agricultural inputs be evaluated as to their long- term affect on the environment and not simply on whether they are synthetic or natural.

The following highlights address some of the questions most frequently asked about the NOSB Recommendations for Organic Crop Production Standards.

Pesticide/Fertilizer Drift

Organic farmers are responsible for establishing adequate buffer zones or barriers to protect against pesticide or fertilizer drift from neighboring conventional farms. Organic crops that have been contaminated in this way cannot be sold or labeled as organic, or fed to organic livestock.

Certifying agents are responsible for verifying such incidents, and for deciding when products from the area may again be sold as organic. The certifier may also decide to implement pre-harvest residue testing.

Emergency Pest Eradication Programs

The NOSB recommends that local, state and federal agencies avoid treating certified organic farms during emergency pest eradication programs, and that they seek alternatives to chemical pest control methods on these farms. Organic growers are responsible for registering their farms with the appropriate state and local agencies to facilitate this.

The NOSB also recommends that certified organic farms be compensated for damages resulting from emergency pest eradication programs.

Residue Testing

Although the NOSB feels strongly that residue standards do not define organic food, it recommends that organic products shall not contain pesticide residues in excess of the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) action level or 5% of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) tolerance. The NOSB proposes the following residue testing system:

  1. National monitoring through the Federal Regulatory Monitoring program of at least one percent (1%) of organic fresh produce and processed product samples.
  2. State monitoring by those states which conduct pesticide residue programs.
  3. Local monitoring by certification agencies when suspicions of contamination arise, or for a three year period following an emergency spray program, or to follow up on positive results from federal, state or local government testing, or in response to complaints.

What are the basic organic standards for livestock (animals)?

Quite simply, organic livestock must be fed organic feed.

The NOSB recommends that conventional feed be allowed only if the organic feed supply has been compromised by a national, state or local weather emergency, or by fire or flood on an organic farm.

Growth promoters and hormones, and plastic pellets for roughage in feed are prohibited. Synthetic vitamins and minerals are allowed.

Organic Livestock Production

Standards for organic livestock production are meant to assure both an organic product to the consumer and living conditions for farm animals that limit stress and promote good health. They address substances used in health care and feeding, as well as herd or flock management and housing.

Livestock includes cattle, sheep, goats, swine, poultry, fish, wild or domesticated game and horses raised for slaughter or used as draft animals. There are even standards for organic bee-keeping.

Regardless of whether they're raised as breeding stock, as dairy animals, or for slaughter, all livestock is covered by the Act.

The following highlights address some of the questions most frequently asked about the NOSB Recommendations for Organic Livestock Standards.

Housing and Health Care for Organic Livestock

Healthy living conditions and attentive care are considered first steps in the prevention of illness. Therefore, animals must not be overcrowded, and must be allowed periodic access to the outdoors and direct sunlight.

Antibiotics, wormers and other medications may not be used routinely as preventative measures. See The National List for specific details on medications recommended by the NOSB for use in organic livestock health care.

Recordkeeping for Organic Livestock

Records must be kept on all feeding and health care practices for each animal or flock, and there must be a verifiable audit trail to trace any animal or flock back to the farm.

Are there basic organic standards for processing and handling?

Yes. Standards for the processing, handling and labeling of organic products cover all steps in the process from receiving organic raw materials, acceptable processing aids and ingredients, appropriate packaging materials and labeling, to cleaning methods, waste disposal and pest management at processing facilities.

The following highlights address some of the questions most frequently asked about the NOSB Recommendations for Organic Processing, Handling & Labeling Standards.

Processing Additives

The following additives are not allowed in organic processing: sulfites, nitrates or nitrites; any ingredient known to contain higher levels of heavy metals or toxic residues than permitted by federal regulation; and any non-agricultural ingredient that is not organically produced unless it is designated as acceptable on The National List.

Packaging Materials

Organic products cannot be packaged in materials, storage containers or bins that contain synthetic fungicides, preservatives or fumigants. The reuse of containers that have been in contact with any prohibited substance is not allowed.

Imported Products

Imported products may be labeled as organically produced if the Secretary of Agriculture determines that they have been produced and handled under an organic program that meets or exceeds the requirements of the USDA's National Organic Program.

What is the National List, and why has it been so controversial?

The National List provides a complete account of all substances permitted and prohibited in the production of organic food. Its purpose is to make clear which materials can and cannot be used in organic production, processing and handling in the United States. You can view the National List directly by visiting the following website:

Who defines the National List?

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is responsible for recommending to the Secretary of Agriculture which materials will be on the list. This process began in 1995, when the NOSB completed a massive review of the materials in use by organic producers, and those recommendations became the base for the first draft of the National List.

The procedure is ongoing, however, and many manufacturers and processors seek to add new substances to the National List that are currently prohibited in organic food production. While the NOSB includes five separate committees, including committees on livestock, food processing, crops and materials, it is the materials committee that must review the most constant supply of petitions asking for permission to use currently prohibited substances in the production of organically-certified foods. The committee continues to review these petitions on a quarterly basis. For example, in its March 2001 quarterly meeting, the materials committee was asked to recommend use of hydroxyquinoline sulfate and polaxalene in livestock husbandry, and cyclohexylamine, morpholine, and octadecylamine in plant food processing.

Once the NOSB makes a recommendation, the Secretary of Agriculture makes the final determination. A Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) gathers and evaluates the scientific data and makes recommendations to the board based on seven review criteria:

  1. Effect on human health.
  2. Effect on the farm ecosystem.
  3. Toxicity and mode of action.
  4. Availability of gentler alternatives.
  5. Probability of environmental contamination during manufacture, use and disposal.
  6. Potential for interactions with other materials used.
  7. Overall compatibility with a system of sustainable agriculture.

How is The National List structured?

The NOSB recommended that the National List be divided into three parts:

  1. Acceptable synthetic production materials;
  2. Prohibited natural production materials;
  3. Acceptable non-agricultural, non-synthetic processing aids.

These lists contain the exceptions to the basic understanding within the organic industry that all organically grown and handled foods are produced with solely natural materials.

This may seem like an unusual structure; however, it avoids the problem of trying to list every natural material that organic growers or processors might use. Such a list might neglect to mention all of the local resources available in a given region.

Why are there exceptions?

Organic production systems encourage a healthy environment with as few inputs as possible. The NOSB recommends that cultural, biological and other management tools be sought to replace material inputs - whether synthetic or natural.

Congress, in passing the OFPA, recognized that it will take time for organic producers and handlers to achieve the long term goals expressed in the Act. The National List was meant to reflect realistic organic practices and to take into account current obstacles to ideal organic production. Therefore, some synthetics are allowed if the review process shows that they are:

  1. Not harmful to human health or the environment.
  2. Necessary to production because of unavailability of natural products.
  3. Consistent with organic ideals.

Likewise, the law provides for prohibition of natural materials that may be harmful to human health or the environment and inconsistent with organic ideals.

Following are some of the questions most frequently asked about the materials recommended by the NOSB for inclusion on The National List.

Why are there no brand names on The List?

The National List applies only to generic materials that are active ingredients and does not apply directly to brand name products. The complexity of brand name product formulations, the changeable nature of what is on the marketplace at any given time, and manufacturer's concerns over confidentiality made this approach the most viable.

Do organic farmers use any pesticides or pest control products?

Yes. Sometimes, organic farmers find that they need to use pest control products as part of an ecological farm plan. However, they may only use products included as acceptable in the National List.

When would an organic grower need to use a pesticide or pest control product?

In a natural ecosystem, predators keep plant pests in check, while diseases strike individual plants or may even wipe out a species. Nature constantly works to correct imbalances. Organic farmers also strive for such a balance, but farming interferes with the native mix of plants and animals, and so farmers must contend with the problems that arise. They must also meet customer expectations of quality - and do all of this in an economic fashion. The allowed pesticides are, therefore, sometimes used as a corrective measure when cultural methods of pest control have failed.

Organic farmers look for pesticides that target their pest specifically while impacting the ecosystem as little as possible. For example, if a field of tomatoes has attracted a large population of tomato hornworms, a natural toxin can be sprayed which harms only leaf-eating caterpillars. If aphids are the problem, a light petroleum oil spray could be used to suffocate these soft-bodied insects without harming their predators.

Next season, the farmer might change his fertility plan or use a natural repellent such as a garlic or cayenne spray to make the crop less attractive, use crop covers and rotations to encourage beneficial predators, or use traps and visual inspection to catch the problem earlier.

What is the difference between IPM and organic production?

IPM, or Integrated Pest Management, differs from organic production in three ways. First, IPM only addresses pest control and not fertility. Second, IPM focuses on reducing chemical sprays, but has no compunction about using them when indicators point to a need. Third, IPM allows for the use of any synthetic pesticide as a last resort measure, rather than restricting to natural and least toxic materials.

What synthetic materials does the NOSB recommend for use in crop production?

Petroleum oil and soaps are allowed for insect control because of their benign nature to people and the environment. They also do little harm to beneficial insects.

Pheromones are chemicals identical to those given off by insects in locating food or mates. They are used in small quantities to lure pests to traps in the field, or to confuse them so that they won't mate.

Pheromones have been revolutionary throughout agriculture in reducing pesticide usage.

Copper and sulfur compounds can stop plant diseases that could destroy entire crops. These metallic compounds mechanically kill fungus spores and have been in use for centuries. Other disease control practices include variety and site selection, proper plant spacing, and improved irrigation methods.

Research is leading to biological controls, but in the meantime, copper and sulfur are allowed for fungus control, along with two antibiotics for virus control on the leaf surface of plants.

Cleaning compounds, specifically alcohol and bleach, are recommended by the NOSB for inclusion in the National List for use in disinfecting irrigation systems and food contact surfaces.

Micronutrient fertilizers are usually synthetic, but are needed in very small amounts. While most natural fertilizers will supply adequate micronutrients, when soil testing shows that micronutrients are needed, they are allowed to balance fertility. Balanced, fertile soil will grow crops with the fewest pest problems and the most nutrition.

Plastic mulch and covers are allowed for weed, insect, and frost protection. Plastics are synthetic, but in this use are not disrupting the natural balance and actually reduce the need for pesticides. They must be removed from the field at the end of each season and may not be plowed in or allowed to decompose.

Liquid fish emulsion also appears on the list of approved synthetics because of added processing aids.

Small quantities of pH adjusters are added to keep the product stable and prevent fermentation in storage.

What are some of the natural substances that the NOSB recommends be prohibited?

Arsenic for insect control, and strychnine for rodent control are some of the few natural materials prohibited in organic production. Their high toxicity and concern about residues has warranted this exclusion. Restrictions have also been placed on the use of other natural materials because they disrupt the ecological balance or are of moderate natural toxicity.

The botanical pest controls Rotenone, Pyrethrum, Ryania, Sabadilla, Neem and Tobacco Dust are derived from plants. Their use is recommended only when primary methods of defense have failed.

This is because they are broad spectrum in action and may affect not only the target pest, but also other insects they contact. These materials are registered with the EPA and have undergone safety testing, falling into EPA's least toxic category. Botanicals are preferred in organic production to even the least toxic synthetic pesticides because botanicals break down quickly into common natural compounds.

An important measure of the safety of these plant-derived materials is their known effects based on historical use for the last 3,000 years.

Sodium nitrate (commonly known as Chilean nitrate) is also a restricted material. Its high salt content may disrupt soil biology, and it is used to feed the plant directly rather than increasing overall soil fertility. While direct feeding may be necessary in certain situations, organic producers should not rely too heavily on this method of fertilizing. Use of sodium nitrate is restricted to a small percent of the total nitrogen requirement of the crop, thus encouraging growers to build soil fertility with less soluble materials that have a lower impact on soil biology.

Why are antibiotics allowed in organic livestock production?

Organic feed, good living conditions and attentive care are usually enough to support animals without medication. However, animals do get sick, and it would be contrary to the underlying values of organic production to let an animal suffer or die when treatment is available. The NOSB therefore recommends that antibiotics be allowed only for the treatment of a sick animal, not as a growth promoter or preventive measure, and never on a routine basis. If an animal intended for slaughter must be given antibiotics, it can no longer be considered organic. If a breeding animal, dairy cow, or laying hen must be given antibiotics, the NOSB recommends it be taken out of the organic production system for an appropriate withdrawal period.

What other drugs does the NOSB recommend for livestock health care?

Synthetic wormers are recommended as allowed for use in much the same way as antibiotics, to prevent the suffering or death of an animal. However, they cannot be used routinely. The producer must have a plan in place to prevent worm infestation. Without such a plan, the producer cannot be certified.

Other recommended allowed synthetics in livestock production include vitamins and trace minerals to balance nutritional requirements, aspirin for inflammation, electrolytes for dehydration, local anesthetics with appropriate withdrawal periods, and milk replacers when fresh milk is not available.

Why are there non-organic ingredients in some organic food?

If you were to make organic cookies at home you would naturally use organic flour, oil, eggs, raisins, etc. But what about the salt and baking soda? Because they are non-agricultural products, neither of these ingredients meets the definition of organic. Processors of many kinds of organic foods face the same dilemma. In addition, nutritional fortification is sometimes required by regulation or professional guidelines, but is not available in natural form.

Thus the NOSB recommends that the National List include synthetic processing aids and natural products such as minerals that are not agricultural. For the finished food to be called organic, these ingredients may not comprise more than 5% of the total product, by weight.

What are some of the non-organic ingredients recommended by the NOSB?

Recommended non-synthetic ingredients include baking soda as a leavener, some calcium compounds, pectin for jelling, and lecithin for consistency. Carrageenan and agar-agar are seaweed products not available in certified organic form, but are recommended as allowed materials for thickening and smooth consistency. Nitrogen and oxygen are recommended as allowed processing aids with restrictions as to source. The NOSB also recommends that bacterial enzymes, cultures and yeast be allowed unless produced from gene splicing.

Recommended synthetic ingredients include the synthesized version of carbon dioxide (a naturally occurring gas) for use in carbonation and pest control, ferrous sulfate and other vitamins and minerals for nutritional fortification, and bleach for cleaning surfaces. The use of ethylene gas, a processed version of the gas naturally produced by fruits for ripening, is recommended by the NOSB only for bananas, since the travel required to get them to market often precludes ripening on the tree.

Synthetic magnesium chloride is available for making tofu, as the FDA restricts the natural form due to health hazards from impurities.

Does the Organic Foods Production Act have provisions for enforcement and penalties for regulatory violation?

Yes. There are provisions and penalties for both producers and certifiers.

Mislabeling and False Statements

Any person who knowingly mislabels a product as organic can be fined a maximum of $10,000 and may be disbarred from the Organic Program for five years. Persons who make false statements to the Secretary of Agriculture, a state official or a certifying agent are subject to penalties under Federal law, and may be disbarred from the program for five years.

Violations by Certifying Agencies

A certifying agency that violates the provisions of the program or falsely or negligently certifies any operation shall lose accreditation and shall not be eligible for re-accreditation for three years.

(Note: The previous summary of the Organic Foods Production Act was based largely on a report produced by Organic Harvest, the educational program of the Organic Trade Association P.O. Box 1078, Greenfield, MA 01302.)

Are there any foods that are not covered by the federal organic standards?

Yes. Although the Final Rule for federal organic standards, officially approved in April 2001, covers the vast majority of food types, standards for culinary herbs, pet food and food for minor animal species such as rabbits are not yet defined.

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