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Industry innovation spurs Organic Trade Association move to tighten organic standards

OTA says petitions to USDA will continue trend of reducing synthetics in organic food

Maggie McNeil
(202) 403-8514
(202) 615-7997
Washington , DC
November 6, 2014
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Acting on extensive feedback and input from its members, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) on Thursday filed two petitions with the National Organic Program to amend the National List of substances that can be used in organic production and processing – in one case strengthening the requirement for organic ingredients and in the other, removing a non-organic substance from the list.

OTA said it was submitting its requests to change the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, the set of stringent guidelines that the organic industry must abide by, as a result of research that has determined that commercially viable alternatives are now available for both the materials being petitioned.

"OTA supports the rigorous process that has been established for adding or removing materials from the National List," said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of OTA. "The process encourages organic stakeholders to be innovative and tenacious to find organic inputs that are most compatible with organic principles. The changes to the National List that OTA is requesting are a result of the organic industry embracing new ideas and blazing new trails. That's the philosophy behind the National List."

OTA is petitioning to revise the current rules that allow natural flavors in organic processed products to require organic flavors when commercially available. OTA is also petitioning to remove lignin sulfonate from the list as an allowed flotation agent in post-harvest handling of organic produce.

All of the substances on the National List are required to fulfill three criteria as specified by the Organic Foods Production Act: 1) They are not harmful to human health or the environment; 2) They are essential to and compatible with organic practices; 3) There are no commercially available organic or natural alternatives.

Currently, natural flavors are allowed in certified organic processed foods in the 5 percent non-organic portion, provided they are produced without synthetic solvents, synthetic carriers and artificial preservatives. They must also be made without the use of genetic engineering and irradiation. Natural flavors have been included on the National List since it was first implemented in 2002. Since that time, however, many organic flavors have been developed and are being successfully used by many companies. The number of organic flavors in the marketplace is now substantial, so OTA is petitioning to revise the current listing of natural flavors to require the use of organic flavors when they are commercially available in the necessary quality, quantity or form.

Lignin sulfonate has been typically used as a floating agent in the handling of organic pears. There are currently two substances on the National List that can be used to float organic pears: lignin sulfonate and sodium silicate. As the pear industry has modernized its equipment, the use of floating agents has declined. OTA contacted certified organic pear packers and found that those still using a floating agent are using sodium silicate exclusively. Thus, lignin sulfonate fails to meet the criteria that it is essential for organic production, and OTA is petitioning that it be removed as an allowable post-harvest floating agent.

"The list of tools for producers and processors in the National List represents the best and least-toxic technology our food system has developed, and these tools must receive regular scrutiny by NOSB [National Organic Standards Board] and the sector at-large to assure they still meet organic expectations," said Batcha.

The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances was originally created through an extensive public process undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including research and engagement with stakeholders in the organic chain and the submission of thousands of public comments to federal regulators. The list mirrored most of the standards that organic producers and handlers were already abiding by through the various certification programs of the time, and was formulated to accommodate the wide range of operations and products grown and raised in every region of the United States.

The U.S. organic sector now boasts over $35 billion in annual sales, with some 18,000 certified organic operators across the country. As the sector has evolved, the list has been fine-tuned to reflect new developments and research findings in organic farming and processing. Since 2008, a marked shift away from synthetic substances has occurred, with just five synthetics added to the list, and a total of 45 during that same time period removed, denied from the list, or further restricted. The no-growth trend in synthetics since 2008 reflects a strong preference in the organic community, and with the regulators monitoring the organic industry, for the use and development of non-synthetic and organic alternatives.

OTA is in continuous contact with its members to stay abreast of the use and necessity of various substances on the list. OTA encourages its members to provide direct comment to the National Organic Standards Board regarding the Board's recommendations, and regularly conducts surveys with membership to allow the organic community to weigh in on the Sunset review process, which reviews the materials on the list every five years to determine if the particular substance should be relisted or removed from the National List.

"While the belief of the organic sector has always been the fewer synthetic substances in the organic process the better, it is also important to realize that in some cases, until organic alternatives are found, some synthetic substances may be necessary to safely produce and process an organic product," said Gwendolyn Wyard, Regulatory Director, Organic Standards & Food Safety for OTA. "It is important to make sure these essential materials stay on the National List until alternatives are developed."

"The National List was meant to reflect realistic organic practices. It's a fluid list, providing a dynamic process of adding and removing substances," said Wyard. "When organic alternatives enter the market, the process provides a transparent method to remove non-essential synthetic substances. This is the spirit of the organic industry. When an organic ingredient is available, then it should be used."

NOSB held its fall public meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, Oct. 28-30 to review substances on the National List and to discuss organic research priorities and practice standards. NOSB meets twice a year in a public forum to hear public comments, discuss committee proposals related to the National List, and vote on those proposals. NOSB voted to renew six substances on the National List and to remove two. The Department of Agriculture will now consider the NOSB recommendations for official approval and adoption.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. OTA is the leading voice for organic trade in the United States, representing over 6,500 organic businesses in every state. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA's Board of Directors is democratically elected by its members. OTA's mission is to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy.