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NOSB Spring Meeting: A Storm In A Tea Cup

By Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

Added May 15, 2011.
The spring meeting of the NOSB in Seattle, Washington, was held last month and had a very full agenda, with some of the recommendations creating concern both about the integrity of organic and their effect of historic production practices.

Top of the agenda was the use of tetracycline and streptomycin on organic pears and apples to prevent fire blight, especially interesting as the meeting was held in the state that provides 50% of the apples consumed in the USA. Some of the other critical issues centered around the use of fortification products in organic milk, especially the use of Martek; and the 'banning of tie stalls' for dairy cattle, space for chickens and pigs and recommendations for slaughter stock as part of the animal welfare recommendations.

There were many comments submitted before the meeting, some of which were form letters reprinted from action alerts, which raised the specter of confrontation between activists and Board members at the meeting plus the introduction of the concept that the number of comments, not the quality of comments, is what mattered. Those of us that have been to many (perhaps too many) NOSB meeting were afraid of headline-seeking comments that would highlight the sometimes contradictory nature of federal regulations and the challenges of the NOSB that for some have made it dysfunctional. We had no need to worry.

At the opening session Deputy Secretary Merrigan spoke by recorded videocast and NOP administrator Miles McEvoy spoke in person about what needed to be done at the meeting, what couldn't be completed immediately, what process needed to be followed and the responsibilities of the NOSB. The Deputy Secretary concentrated on the importance of relisting nutrient, vitamins and minerals and Miles gave an update of NOP activities and priorities. Their ability to set the scene and show the bigger picture created a more conducive atmosphere and a more collegial interaction between the Board and stakeholders which had been the culture of the Board in previous years.

Comments to the Board

At this meeting the USDA NOP adopted a different process for folks that wanted to comment on the recommendations of the various committees. Because of the number of people, especially consumers, that signed up to speak, the USDA NOP decided to cut the comment time from five minutes to three. Of equal concern, they limited the discussion between commentators and the Board members to just two minutes, as this interaction between the Board members and commentators can be very useful in drawing out different points. This provided a challenge to commenters and limited the flow of information to the Board.

In fact, there was no need for the NOP to worry about having sufficient time. Many of the commentators failed to show and by mid-afternoon on day one of the meeting, we were at least one hour ahead of schedule. The Board ended up adjourning nearly a half hour early on the first day and on the second day of the meeting, where there is Board discussion of the Committee recommendations, they also adjourned 1.5 hours early, due to a lack of discussion by the Board. These new procedures limited the sharing of information so important for the relationship between the stakeholders and the Board, which is essential for good rule-making and transparency in decision-making. Hopefully the NOP will provide guidance to the Board on how best to proceed at future meetings.

Nutrients, Vitamins and Minerals

The Board dealt with many products that were reaching the allocated time for re-examination as to whether they stay on the National List (sunset). Most of the recommendations were uncontroversial and showed how diligently the volunteer NOSB Board members were doing their work. Of particular interest to dairy was a recommendation to relist nutrients, vitamins and minerals (products which are used to fortify milk) but with an annotation change. The handling committee had a recommendation for an annotation change (a description of how the product can be used) for nutrients, vitamins and minerals on the agenda that would have permitted synthetic materials which have not been reviewed by NOSB, broadly characterized as accessory nutrients, to be added to organic foods. This blanket allowance would allow synthetics that have been thoroughly and individually reviewed by NOSB.

The committee rescinded it due to the need for more time to study the issue after a letter clarifying the current classification of allowable products from FDA, but by the time of the meeting it was back on the agenda due to the need to act because of the pending sunset for the existing allowance which more narrowly defined the use of nutrients. The Federation Of Organic Dairy Farmers (FOOD Farmers) had made that point in their comments to the NOSB, submitted prior to the meeting, that the committee had a responsibility to ensure that the existing nutrients were not sunsetted. The NOSB voted 13-0 (with one abstention) to maintain the status quo by re-listing the nutrient, vitamins and minerals using the FDA 21 CFR 104.20 regulation.

They took this action to keep these nutrient vitamin and minerals available for use in organic foods. The NOSB will work on a recommended annotation on this topic at their fall meeting. Miles McEvoy told the board that they will shortly publish a draft guidance indicating their understanding of what qualifies as a nutrient, vitamin and mineral and what does not. This will clarify what form of DHA fortification can be used. There will be a 60 day comment period on that draft guidance, and then the program will review the comments and issue a final rule, with an implementation period long enough for businesses to change the formulations of their products.

Animal Welfare and Animal Handling, Transit, and Slaughter Recommendations

At the start of her presentation, the Chair of the Livestock Committee, Wendy Fulwider, apologized for the poor editing that left out key components of the animal welfare recommendations in the official recommendations published by the NOP. She made a PowerPoint presentation to the NOSB on the differing methods of housing dairy livestock to educate the Board and the attendees on the realities of housing used in the US organic dairy industry. The livestock committee had met prior to the meeting and had made many changes to the recommendations in response to the comments submitted, choosing to adopt a lot of the changes suggested by the FOOD Farmers comments. When the time came for a final vote on the recommendations for both animal welfare and handling transit and slaughter on the last day, the Livestock Committee withdrew all their recommendations for further consideration.

Antibiotics Use On Organic Fruit

At this meeting, Streptomycin was under NOSB sunset review, and the listing of Tetracycline was subject to an annotation that allows use of this material only until October 21, 2012. Proposals to request continued use of these antibiotics questioned whether there is an expectation that production practices improve so that sunsetted materials can eventually be taken off the National List, and also highlighted the practicalities of organic fruit production.
Many consumer groups were concerned with the extension of use of Streptomycin and Tetracycline for control of Fire Blight in apple and pear trees, yet growers emphasized that the varieties most susceptible to the disease are also the ones in most demand by the buyers. Streptomycin and tetracycline are, at present, the only known alternatives for control of Fire Blight.

Given the fact that fruit trees are perennials that require a multi-year (in fact decades) investment, and take several years from initial planting to fruit production, the likely outcome of an immediate prohibition of these antibiotics would not result in the discontinuation of antibiotic use in organic systems, but rather a withdrawal of orchard land from organic certification. The result of this could be not only the loss of organic apples and pears in the marketplace, but the use of other conventional materials and practices on land that had previously also provided the environmental and health benefits related to organic production.

Fruit production of any scale requires these tools to control this pervasive threat and if growers are going to be sustainable without using these antibiotics, they need the support of all levels of the organic community to educate consumers and buyers, invest in research and mandate changes based on a time table that allows growers to re-invest in seed stock over a period of years. Unfortunately, based on the recent, significant shift toward production and marketing of susceptible varieties such as Fuji and Gala, the organic industry (from growers through to the retail marketplace) has not paid enough attention to the provisions of the NOP regulations that require a systems approach to pest control. Instead the reliance on antibiotic use increased and this has not only contributed to the resistance of fire blight to streptomycin in the Northwest, it has reduced the incentive to develop other strategies for combating the disease. USDA has failed to support research into alternative strategies for organic production, and as a result, we must once again point to a significant failure of USDA to support the needs of organic farmers.

The final recommendation from the Crop Committee was that both Tetracycline and Streptomycin remain on the National List and be allowed for fire blight control in apples and pears but only until October 21, 2014. The Crops Committee will be developing a transition plan to identify steps producers can take and also identify research needs to address the eventual removal of tetracycline from the National List. NOP also indicated it would take action to facilitate more discussion. These recommendations were passed by the full committee.

These highlights do not do justice to the work of the NOSB Board members, the NOP staff and the many commentators that took the time to travel to Seattle to present their ideas to the Board. The Board is an integral part of the process of allowing change and innovation into the regulations, and, at its best, allowing intelligent conversation on the issues between Board members and stakeholders. What we have now is an overworked and possibly dysfunctional Board that has limited time for research and detailed recommendations.

Some suggestions for change:

The work of the Board is far more than should be asked, or realistically expected, of a volunteer committee. We have found recently that there are very few nominations for the Board from producers, growers and small scale manufacturers who find it difficult to take the time from their business to conscientiously complete the tasks expected of each committee member. It is not acceptable that only those with a salary from a company, organization or institution can afford to be Board members, inevitably skewing the recommendations away from the practical needs of producers. Perhaps the industry can look at ways to subsidize those Board members that are not on salaries.

NOP may also want to look at having more than two meetings a year with the volume of work that needs to be done and the obvious interest of the industry to comment on the Board's recommendations. Allowing commentators a mere "tweet" to express complex issue does not work and does not encourage a collegial culture between Board members and stakeholders.
The committee's work is done regularly by conference call and email in between meetings. There are many very knowledgeable and committed organizations within the organic community that are very willing to educate and assist the committee members in their work and perhaps they should be involved in the initial stages of deliberations rather than waiting for the publication of recommendations.

In planning for the NOSB meeting there should be an increased time between the deadline for comments and the meeting to allow the committee to read comments and perhaps change their recommendations, and have those revised recommendations published. This might take some of the urgency out of commentators' need to be heard in person.

At the meeting, the chair of the NOSB explained the need to limit the time available for comments and suggested that commentators not use their time to thank Board members for their service. While many followed that advice and also limited any attempt at humor, I found that it reflected badly on a community which is well known for its in-fighting. The NOSB meeting, especially when it travels across country, can be a great promotion for organic agriculture. Democracy in action, no matter how imperfect, should be welcomed and applauded. Humor (even bad humor), gratitude, respect and politeness are part of a collegial atmosphere that can only benefit our industry. Thank you to all NOSB committee members, past present and future, for your service to our industry.

The comments presented to the NOSB from the Federation Of Organic Dairy Farmers (FOOD Farmers) the umbrella group for NODPA, WODPA and MODPA can be found at:

http://www.nodpa.com/NODPA_comments_NOSB_4.25.11.pdf