The National List
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
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.
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).
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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 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
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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