Food Defenders Protest Corporate Takeover of 'Organic' Standards

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Common Dreams

Food Defenders Protest Corporate Takeover of 'Organic' Standards

Protester arrested as groups fight for a natural food system people can 'trust'

Alexis Baden-Mayer of the Organic Consumers Association protesting the corruption of organic safeguards at the National Organic Standards Board meeting in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo: @JennyHops reporting for Politico Pro)

Alexis Baden-Mayer of the Organic Consumers Association protesting the corruption of organic safeguards at the National Organic Standards Board meeting in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo: @JennyHops reporting for Politico Pro)

Champions of organic food brought the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting to a halt on Tuesday as they raised their voices against what they see as the takeover of the organic standards by the corporate food industry.

The NOSB—an advisory board to the USDA  and designed to represent farmers, consumers and other advocates of organic food—is charged with overseeing organic standards and presenting recommendations to the federal government.  In recent years, however, critics charge the quality and intergrity of the national organic standards set by the NOSB have been eroded by the influence of a large agricultural interests and powerful corporations in the food industry.

In order to delay the opening of a four-day meeting in San Antonio, Texas, demonstrators stood at the front of the conference room displaying a banner which read: "Safeguard Organic Standards."

Tuesday's protest, organized by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), was held to draw attention to what the group is calling the "last straw" in the corporate-backed erosion of organic standards: a recent change to what is known as the "sunset process," which determines the synthetic ingredients that are permitted in organic foods.

As explained by Mark A. Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, "agribusiness" and corporate food companies "had their minions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture" change the rules in order to push "gimmicky synthetics and nutraceuticals in organic food."

“Don’t change sunset!" the group chanted until police arrived. One protester, Alexis Baden-Mayer, the political director for OCA, refused to disperse and was eventually placed under arrest and carried out.

Citing a recent Consumer Reports survey which found that 7 out of 10 Americans want as few non-organic ingredients approved for organic food as possible, Katherine Paul, OCA communications director, told Common Dreams that "people don't want this stuff in their food."

However, she added, "People don't have time to follow the wonky policy decisions, so it's easy for standards to be eroded without them knowing about it."

The so-called 'sunset process' required that non-organic food materials approved by the NOSB for use in organic foods—such as sausage casings from factory-farmed animals, synthetic vitamins, and the antibiotic streptomycin—must be reviewed every five years. Unless re-approved by a two-third majority vote, the items would be dropped from the list.

As Paul explains, the process was designed to ensure that these non-organic materials would only be temporarily allowed in organic foods until a better, organic option was found.

Under the new rules, non-organic ingredients are no longer dropped after five years and, instead, a majority vote is required to remove them from the list. The rule change "almost guarantees that the list of non-organic materials will just get longer and longer and it will be impossible to get them out," Paul said.

Organic industry watchdog groups—including The Cornucopoia Institute, The Center for Food Safety, The National Organic Coalition, the March Against Monsanto and OCA—are opposed to the change, which the USDA made in September 2013 without any input from the public..

The change to the sunset process, the groups say, is the "last straw" in the food industry's corruption of these safeguards.

"As consumer interest in organic grows, sales grow. These larger companies want a piece of that pie but dont want to play by the rules," Paul said, adding that food industry representatives "get themselves appointed to these boards and manage to, over time, corrupt these standards."

"Little by little these standards are being eroded, for the benefit for larger and larger organic and so-called 'natural' companies," Paul continued.

"Corporate interests, including the industry lobby group the Organic Trade Association, have been gaming the system for years with the help of the USDA,” said Cornucopia's Kastel.

Later this week OCA is expected to announce the formation of a new trade association called the Organic and Natural Health Association.

"Our intent is to have a really legitimate trade association with very strict criteria so that companies that belong to this new association will be true organic companies that will be really committed to preserving these organic standards," OCA stated.

"Organic has to be a system people trust," added Cynthia Kurkowski, an organizer representing March Against Monsanto-San Antonio.

Further updates on the protest and NOSB meeting can be found on Twitter.

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