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Steve Hoffman - Compass Natural

Gene editing, celery powder and organic enforcement: A roundup from the NOSB’s fall meeting

The National Organic Standards Board recently addressed some of the industry’s critical issues: protecting small-scale organic dairy farmers; strengthening fraud enforcement; and gene editing.

From protecting small-scale organic dairy farmers and strengthening enforcement over organic fraud, to expressing concern over the use of celery powder in processed organic meats and the threat of gene editing in organic production, the National Organic Standards Board addressed several critical issues surrounding the integrity of the organic seal during its recent fall meeting.

The board voted to prioritize four areas of organic research: ecosystem services and biodiversity of organic systems; managing cover crops for on-farm fertility; identifying barriers and developing protocols for organic nurseries; and assessing the genetic integrity of organic crops at risk.

Approximately 150  advocates, producers, farmers, manufacturers and others attended the fall meeting of the National Organic Standards Board Oct. 23-25 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, according to a USDA spokeswoman. During the 12 hours of public comment, about 115 people spoke to the board members about their concerns, she said.

“Farmers are some of the most innovative people in the world when we need to be,” said Jeff Dean, an organic farmer and member of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. “Please keep our standards strong and give our proud, innovative farmers the chance to provide organic products to the consumers who want them,” he appealed to the NOSB board members.

This overview of the meeting was collected from published accounts and Twitter feeds from Organic Trade Association, Cornucopia Institute, Organic Insider, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Foundation and other organizations attending the event.

Strengthening organic enforcement

Preventing fraud in organic trade is critical to maintaining product integrity and consumer confidence. Jennifer Tucker, deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), presented a proposed NOP Enforcement and Oversight Rule that will be issued later this year for public comment, and improvements already underway to strengthen enforcement.

Those improvements include additional training resources focused on oversight of complex domestic operations; traceback and mass balance audits; and research into risk-based certification models for accreditation and certifier oversight. The National Organic program accredits and oversees more than 80 independent certification organizations, examining and verifying how these organizations document, certify and inspect more than 37,000 organic farms and businesses around the world.

In the realm of imports, farm-level yield analysis has been a valuable tool in taking enforcement action, Tucker said. In the Black Sea region, the NOP examined records from organic grain and oilseed producers, data from regional producers and weather models and found many organic farms reported yields far higher than regional averages. As a result, more than 275 operations in that area have lost their organic certification, according to the agency.

The NOP has continued country commodity studies and ship surveillance, increased the number of unannounced visits it makes, Tucker said. Follow-up investigations have led to certifiers and operators adverse actions, she said.

Tucker shared that new training on dairy compliance is available for certifiers and inspectors at the online Organic Integrity Learning Center, which continually offers new courses since its launch in May. 

Also, the comment period for the Origin of Livestock rule—a proposal to change how farmers may transition their dairy animals to organic—has been reopened. Written comments must be received or postmarked on or before Dec. 2. 

What’s the deal with celery powder?

To the relief of organic meat producers but to the chagrin of those concerned about the potential health hazards of nitrates and nitrites in processed foods, the NOSB board voted 11-1, with one abstention, to allow the continued use of celery powder in organic food production. Dave Mortensen, chair of the Department of Agriculture, Nutrition and Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire, voted against keeping celery powder on the list, and Emily Oakley, founding partner of Three Springs Farm in Oaks, Oklahoma, abstained from voting.

Used in the curing of processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, bacon and deli meats, celery powder is a key processing ingredient in the organic meat industry, as it is the only allowed alternative to synthetic nitrates and nitrites used in conventional meat production. At issue, reports New Food Economy, is the fact that a significant amount of processing goes into producing celery powder for use in cured meats, and that the celery itself does not have to be organic, which brings with it the concomitant use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Non-organic celery is ranked 11th on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of vegetables that, when grown conventionally, absorb the highest levels of pesticides.

Additionally, whereas the amount of synthetic nitrates is limited in conventionally processed meats, unlimited quantities of celery powder are allowed in meats that are labeled “uncured” or “nitrate free,” New Food Economy reports, which has been cause for concern among some health advocates.

“There is little evidence that preserving meats using celery … is any healthier than other added nitrites,” Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, told New Food Economy. “Until industry provides strong evidence that nitrites in celery juice have different biologic effects than nitrites from other sources, it’s very misleading to label these [products] as ‘nitrite free’ or to consider such processed meats as being healthier.” 

The Organic Trade Association supported continuing the allowance of non-organic celery powder at the Fall NOSB 2019 Meeting so as not to disrupt the organic meat industry. However, the trade association, in collaboration with the Organic Center, submitted a $2 million proposal to the USDA and convened a working group to find organic sources of celery powder and research alternatives to celery powder in organic meat processing. NOSB members expressed hope that when the ingredient comes up for review again in five years, their successors may be presented with more alternatives.

Gene editing in organic

Gene editing, which the organic industry considers GMO technology, remains a prohibited method in organic agriculture, Tucker said, adding that gene editing is not on USDA’s regulatory agenda for organics. However, according to Informa’s IEG Policy News, Tucker also noted that USDA does encourage “continued robust dialogue about the role of new technologies and innovations in organic agriculture.”

That idea alarmed a number of organic advocates concerned that USDA might try to influence the NOSB’s position on gene editing. In response, Mortensen criticized USDA NOP officials. “It’s clear from the many comments that we received that organic consumers and organic farmers do not want genetically modified practices as any part of our production system, end of story,” he said. “And I don’t think we should be encouraging or suggesting that we need robust dialogue. I think this is just one example of where we get ourselves into trouble and compromise the policies that we were charged to do.”

Consistent with its gene-editing position, NOSB voted unanimously to exclude induced mutagenesis via in vitro nucleic acid techniques as a method in organic production, reported the Organic Seed Alliance in its Twitter feed. According to the organic advocacy organization IFOAM Organics International, such mutagenesis technology—as well as CRISPR, grafting onto transgene root stock and other related practices—“are genetic engineering techniques that are not compatible with organic farming and that must not be used in organic breeding or organic production.”

Other board activity

On Oct. 24,  the USDA published a final rule in the Federal Register to amend the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances based on public input and the April 2018 recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board. This final rule allows elemental sulfur to be used as a slug or snail bait to reduce crop losses; allows polyoxin D zinc salt for plant disease control; and reclassifies magnesium chloride from a synthetic to a non-synthetic substance. The final rule is effective Nov. 22.

During the fall meeting, new NOSB officers, who serve 1-year terms, were elected:

  • Chair—Steve Ela (Producer), Ela Family Farms, Hotchkiss, Colorado.
  • Vice chair—Scott Rice (Certifier), Washington State Department of Agriculture, Olympia, Washington.
  • Secretary—Jessie Buie (Producer), Ole Brook Organics, Jackson, Mississippi.

In addition, outgoing NOSB members Harriet Behar, Ashley Swaffer, Tom Chapman and Lisa de Lima were recognized for their public service.

The next NOSB meeting is scheduled for April 29-May 1 in Crystal City, Virginia.

Steven Hoffman is managing director of Compass Natural, which provides brand marketing, PR, social media and strategic business development services to natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. Contact steve@compassnaturalmarketing.com.

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