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Letter to Secretary Veneman, USDA, regarding organic food

May 5 , 2004
The Honorable Ann Veneman
United States Department of Agriculture
14th Street and Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Madame Secretary:
We are writing to you regarding the recent release of several new directives and guidance documents signed by Richard Matthews, Program Manager of the National Organic Program (NOP). As a result of these Directives, consumers who pay a premium for organic will unknowingly be getting food products quite different from what they expect. We urge you to withdraw these Directives immediately as they siginificantly undermine the integrity of the organic label for consumers, farmers, and certifiers.
At the recent National Organic Standards Board meeting (April 28-30, 2004), Barbara Robinson, Deputy Administrator, Transportation and Marketing Programs, stated that the public has no right to comment on these Directives since, she claimed, they are only clarifications of the law or the associated regulations. However, Consumers Union believes that these Directives will bring about significant changes that will weaken the organic standards. Moreover, given their significance and impact on the benefits of the NOP, these documents should have gone through the rulemaking process where public input can be taken into consideration. There are four areas that stand out as particularly problematic.
First, the Pesticide Use Directive, issued April 24, 2004, is in violation of the regulations and the law that prohibit the use of EPA List 2 and List 3 inert ingredients. This new directive now allows farmers to use pesticide formulations without determining whether they contain chemicals on EPA Lists 2 and 3. While this NOP Directive requires that the farmer and certifier give “due diligence” toward determining specific ingredients, staff from EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention has confirmed to Consumers Union that it cannot provide such confidential business information to anyone. Moreover, the NOP staff has made clear that if the farmer or certifer cannot determine the specific inert ingredients in the pesticide formulation, it is nonetheless approved for use.
The Q&A from the NOP Compliance and Enforcement Pesticide Use Directive (NOP C&E #04.01) states:

Issue: We have been asked to clarify how accredited certifying agents are to enforce the prohibition on the use of pesticides containing List 3 Inert ingredients.
Answer: If the certifying agent and producer, after reasonable effort (contacting the manufacturer, EPA, and other USDA accredited certifying agents) are unable to ascertain whether inerts in a pesticide are allowed under the NOP, the certifying agent will approve that part of the organic production system plan. The certifying agent will inform the producer of the requirement to immediately stop use of the pesticide upon determination that the pesticide contains a prohibited inert. This notification must be documented. There will be no adverse impact on the operation’s certification until such notification is received by the producer. If the producer uses the pesticide after receiving this notification, the certifying agent will initiate revocation enforcement action.

This “blind-use” policy puts the burden of proof for determining use of prohibited substances on farmers, certifers, and consumers–who are not legally entitled to know the specific ingredients in formulations. In our opinion, this is not workable.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has previously established a voluntary NOP pesticide registration program (PR 2003-1). This program provides a voluntary process for manufacturers of pesticide formulations to seek additional labeling from EPA that assures farmers and certifers that the formulations meet the requirements of the NOP. We agree with this EPA pesticide registration program. However, without the use of such labeled pesticide formulations, knowledge of specific inert ingredients must be established before a potentially prohibited chemical is used on the organic farm. Blind use of prohibited chemicals on organic food goes directly against the merits and values of organic farming and will erode consumer confidence in the organic label.
Second, the Scope Guidance, issued April 16, 2004, prohibits the use of the USDA organic seal on all fish until standards have been established. Consumers Union agrees that there are serious issues regarding wild-caught and farm-raised fish that need to be taken into consideration by the NOP before the organic label is approved for use on aquaculture. However, we strongly disagree with the allowance to use non-NOP organic claims on fish while NOP establishes standards. This will lead to great consumer confusion and will undermine the meaning of the organic label on fish. Consumers Union urges the USDA to prohibit all organic labeling of fish until the NOP has established appropriate standards for labeling fish as NOP-organic.
Third, the Fishmeal Use Guidance, issued April 16, 2004, allows the feeding of non-organic fishmeal to livestock. Aside from the fact that cows do not eat fish in nature, fishmeal laden with synthetic preservatives and contaminants such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) will now be approved for use in organic livestock production. This is in violation of the 100% organic feed requirement for animals. Consumers Union urges you to rescind this guidance document immediately.
Last, the Antibiotic Guidance statement, issued April 16, 2004, now allows dairy animals to be treated with any drug and still remain on the organic farm. After 12 months, products from those animals may be sold as organic. This is a drastic shift from a 12 month waiting period for dairy herd replacement to one where any animal at anytime can be treated with any drug. Consumers Union urges you to rescind this guidance document immediately.
Consumers Union urges the USDA to protect the National Organic Program and the associated standards that have been established. Feeding non-organic fish to dairy cows, allowing the use of a non-NOP organic claim on fish and approving blind use of pesticides will seriously undermine the credibility of the organic label for both consumers and farmers. These directive and guidance statements fly in the face of Congressional intent of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, and are misleading to both organic food buyers and producers alike.
We would appreciate the opportunity to discuss these issues with you and your staff. Thank you for your consideration.
R. David Pittle, Ph.D.
Sr. Vice President, Technical Policy
Jean Halloran
Director, Consumer Policy Institute
Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D.
Director, Eco-labels.org Project
Adam J. Goldberg
Policy Analyst
cc: United States Senate
Members, House of Representatives Organic Caucus