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The National List

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The National List

When organic legislation was first introduced nearly two decades ago, the organic label was assumed to mean that no artificial or synthetic ingredients would be present in a product with the USDA label.   While consumers often still think that the organic label signifies the overall "purity "of a product, the label is far more complicated than the simple green circle leads most consumers to believe.  When the National Organic Program finally came into place in 2002, after a decade of deliberation and an unusually high level of public commentary, the National List served not only as a guide on prohibited ingredients but also included a relatively large (and growing) list of allowable ingredients.

Who Decides?
  The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is a nongovernmental board comprised of 15 volunteers and represents the central authority on the National List.  Volunteer board members include farmers, processors, environmentalists and consumer advocates.  Overall, the composition of the board 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.

The members of the NOSB make recommendations on the contents of the List to the Secretary of Agriculture 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.  

In general, the National List represents significant flexibility in organic production, meant to give organic producers and handlers greater opportunity to meet the Act’s long-term goals. Though the criteria listed above are fairly comprehensive and conscientious, the flexibility of the system is often manipulated.  Under the original law, the List was to be reduced in size over the years, allowing time for organic alternatives (rather than synthetics) to be made more readily available.  Rather, the list has grown from 77 to 245 substances since it was first put into place in 2002.  Clearly, the National List has come to represent more than temporary flexibility, as it was originally intended.  Rather, the list allows producers to maintain control over acceptable ingredients or processes, regardless of their organic integrity or, at times, their disputed safety (Kindy, 2009). 

Aside from the disputed safety or integrity of synthetics, the most fundamental flaw of the National List is that few consumers are aware of the nuances and differentiated levels of the organic label. Though it is certainly true that most U.S. consumers are unfamiliar with how and where their food is produced, in the case of organic food, certain assumptions are made about the product and how it was grown, processed, or packaged.  With the inherent flexibility of the National List, consumers are distanced from the meaning of the label and often assume the final products to be more "pure" or to have more organic "integrity" than is often the case.  As the organic market continues to grow and include more and more consumers, often those who may be unfamiliar with organic farming and organic foods, it is important to consider how the consumers might be made better aware of the label and its levels of significance.

What’s on The List?
Synthetics are pretty hard to visualize, whether in organic foods or in general.  What does a synthetic really look like?  In terms of organic foods and the National List, synthetics come in many different forms but are typically limited to the production end of things, typically in raising organic livestock or broad agricultural practices.  To be fair, not all of the items on the National List are synthetic.  Many are simply non-organic, such as celery powder, chipotle chile, or pectin, and typically not produced in great enough quantities to support an organic market.  (Berner, 2007)

Though many synthetics are used for production purposes, such as sorting soybeans or cleaning packaging, quite a few become part of the final "organic" product on our grocery shelves.  While synthetics are used in the production or preservation of fresh foods, such as preservatives for organic fruits or feed for organic chickens, they are more commonly found in packaged and processed foods that require greater attention to preserving freshness or adding color, for example. (Deardoff, 2010). It is also important to note here that neither water nor salt are considered to be organic. However, as they are both extremely common ingredients, they are excluded from the fluid weight used to determine what type of an organic label a product can accurately display. 

Many of the synthetics included on the National List would be surprising to most consumers, as they include certain herbicides and insecticides, items typically thought to be entirely (and necessarily) excluded from the organic process.  Rather, the National List allows the carefully controlled use of many unconventional items with the stipulation that they make no contact with the crop, have no cost effective alternative, or are used infrequently or in limited quantities. Some examples of allowed synthetics include ethanol, chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, or boric acid, used either for cleaning or pesticide purposes.  Certain nonsynthetic (but also nonorganic) substances are also allowed, such as charcoal (for filtering), wax (for packaging), or animal enzymes, typically used in dairy or cheesemaking processes.  Though the list is too long to show in great detail here, the point remains that the list is extensive, detailed, and is host to an extremely wide range of substances for an even broader range of purposes.

To see the list in its entirety, visit the National Organic Program’s website.

The Changes
Since the organic standards were formally put into place in 2002, industry and producer advocates have fought tirelessly for specific inclusions to the National List.  Claiming that the cost of specific inputs (such as organic feed for animals) is a deterrent to organic practices overall, producers across the country have advocated for greater flexibility among allowable ingredients (Kindy, 2009).  These changes have been incremental, highly contested, and relatively unknown to most consumers. 

Additions to the List are known as “petitions,” allowing producers a platform to advocate for new items to be incorporated in the National List.   Typically, producers argue that a particular part of the organic market (i.e. organic bratwurst) is not yet large enough to create demand for the production of a specific ingredient or product that is essential to the process.  Though petitions have come to represent industry’s misuse of the organic labeling system, it is clear that the motivation for a flexible National List can be primarily attributed to the limitations of a relatively new and relatively small market.      

Legislative amendments since 2002 have given room for producers, mainly represented by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), to greatly expand the National List.  The OTA is a Massachusetts-based business association representing large and small organic producers across the United States (OTA, 2010)  Though their mission advocates organic integrity and transparency for consumers, their policy-related activism has mainly advanced a producer-oriented (rather than consumer-oriented) viewpoint.  Generally, the OTA’s interests are for broader interpretations of the organic label, allowing more products to be labeled as organic and therefore included in a growing industry. 

Beginning in 2002, a Maine blueberry farmer, Arthur Harvey, brought a civil suit against then Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman.  Harvey argued that the National Organics Program (NOP) violated the Organic Food Production Act on several counts, namely expressing his concern that the NOP’s authority exceeded their stated legal responsibilities.  This concern reflects a broader question of government involvement (and steadily growing authority) in the organics industry (Cummins, 2005).  Harvey’s case specifically cites the use of synthetics as a fundamental point of contention.  Most importantly, Harvey notes that because synthetics occupy a relatively unchartered territory, oversight of their safety is minimal at best.  Because organic foods are governed outside of the Food and Drug Administration, many acceptable synthetic ingredients (whether used in production or in the product itself) have never been tested nor approved by the FDA.  Although the final judgment on the case (in 2005) left the USDA’s rules in place, the case spurred an important conversation in the organic production and labeling arena.  In amicus curiae briefs filed on behalf of Harvey, organizations such as the Rural Advancement Foundation International, the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, the Organic Consumers Association, and the Sierra Club, among others, echoed their deep concern over the use of the synthetics, the expansion of NOP authority, and throughout all, the integrity of the organics label (Organic Consumers Association, 2004).  

Though the case did little to stop the continued growth of the National List, it nonetheless brought together many of the vocal critics of the USDA's regulation of all things organic.  One voice in particular, the Cornucopia Institute, has worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between government regulation and consumer safety, all the while advocating for the economic rights of the "family-farm."

The Dangers
Though the National List represents significant flexibility for organic producers, allowing more farmland to be dedicated to relatively sustainable practices, the more specific allowances of the List still present grave problems.  In 2006, after the Harvey case concluded fairly uneventfully, a conflict arose over the use of a synthetic fatty acid in organic infant formula.  In spite of the ingredient’s default ban from organic products (because of the National List), and in spite of claims of potential health problems associated with its production (because of the use of hexane), the additive was eventually allowed for broader use in organic infant formula, passed through the oversight of the Secretary of Agriculture at the time (Kindy, 2009).  This type of loophole demonstrates the obstacles that the National List presents to responsible and safe labeling.  Though the issue of infant formula safety first arose in 2006, two of the synthetic substances in question (DHA and ARA) were only formally banned by the Obama administration in April of 2010.  While the politics of synthetics and the National List are certainly blurry, it is a hopeful sign to see the Federal Government speak out against these potential dangers (Kindy, 2010).  This type of caution is a powerful and practical use of federal authority, a perspective that was largely absent in the Bush Administration, the first presidency to oversee the National Organics Program.  Individual consumers, the country's public health, and the integrity and safety of the organic market all stand to benefit from a sustained precaution toward synthetics and additives in our food, organic or otherwise.

The National List, though a seemingly small part of the organics debate (between 5 and 30% of the product, in theory), represents far greater issues at stake with organic food, whether with production, labeling, or consumption. The synthetics included on the National List are representative of a broader trend towards a problematic flexibility in organic standards, whether with antibiotic use in cows, pasture access for chickens, or any other perceived burden on producers or handlers.  Though the conflicts over the National List are significant in and of themselves, they are equally so because they represent the general centralization and industrialization of the organic food industry.  As the organic market continues to grow, the consumer voice continues to lose out to dominant producer interest.  Overall, the marketability of organic foods has inserted itself between an accurate label and the interested consumer, often preventing consumers from understanding (or helping to determine) the contents of their food and the limits of the science that produces it.  

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