Curtain Goes Up on Organics

Report from the Spring NOSB Meeting: ‘Organic Regulatory Theater’

May 6, 2015 | Patrick Kerrigan

Organic Consumers Association

Despite repeated calls by Board Chair Jean Richardson and other NOSB members for “organic unity,” the Spring 2105 meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was a continuation of the confusion, conflict and undemocratic processes that marred the previous two NOSB meetings in Louisville and San Antonio.

Taking center stage this year at what Cornucopia Institute’s Mark Kastel referred to as “organic regulatory theater,” was the issue of whether or not to grant the NOSB Livestock Subcommittee’s request to increase the amount of synthetic methionine allowed in feed fed to broiler chickens certified as organic.

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) submitted testimony against the Livestock Committee’s petition, along with more than 17,000 signatures on a petition calling on the NOSB to phase out the use of synthetic methionine and honor the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) requirement of year round legitimate outdoor access.

We lost (for now), thanks to a deciding—and decidedly theatrical—vote cast by a board member, via Skype, from his hospital bed. With his cohorts cheering him on.

The synthetic methionine drama will continue to unfold when NOSB members convene in Vermont, for their Fall meeting. That’s when the step-down levels of methionine, approved at the April 2010 meeting and implemented in October 2012 will sunset (or, be “retired”). The possibly good news between now and then is that the National Organic Program’s (NOP) new animal welfare standards, requiring at least two feet of space per bird, and 40 percent vegetative outdoor cover, are scheduled for release this summer.

This year’s opening scene

After a presentation by National Organic Coalition Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy, NOSB Board Chair and Consumer Representative Jean Richardson welcomed the full room on the first day of the meeting, calling on the groups assembled to “seek common ground.”

Richardson also called on the Cornucopia Institute to retract its letter demanding the replacement of the NOP’s leadership. Cornucopia’s demand was driven in part by the role NOP leadership played in the unlawful reversal, in 2013, of something called the Sunset provision. That action by NOP leadership also precipitated a lawsuit against the NOP, filed by Center for Food Safety, OCA and other allies.

The NOSB’s agenda for 2015 is ambitious—too ambitious, argued Cornucopia’s Kastel in his lead-off comments. The NOSB is scheduled to review this year more than 200 petitioned and sunsetting materials, in addition to considering broad policy issues such as GMO contamination of organic farms. It’s “a bit of a farce” to think that all of the substances will be adequately, much less thoroughly reviewed, Kastel said.

The main plot

Ambitious agenda aside, by far the most contentious issue at the April 2015 meeting centered around a petition by the NOSB’s Livestock Subcommittee asking for an increase–from  2.0 pounds per ton to 2.5 pounds per ton of feed—in the amount of synthetic methionine allowed in poultry feed fed to broiler chickens. The issue attracted by far the most number of public comments, with written commenters overwhelmingly (99.5 percent) opposed to allowing the increase.

A .5-pound increase in synthetic methionine may not seem significant. But it’s worth recalling that the substance was initially prohibited, and later allowed for inclusion on the National List in 2001, only after synthetic methionine was discovered in virtually all organic chicken feed. The NOSB approved it in 2001, but with a three-year phase out with the expectation that three years was long enough to develop alternatives. In October 2010, the Board rejected a request for an increase due to a lack of scientific evidence in support of the increase, and again in April 2011 rejected another petition requesting averaging.

But this year, Board members ignored that evidence. Board members also ignored the warnings of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the nation’s largest and oldest organic certifier in the country, on the issue of allowing organic poultry producers to “average” the amount of synthetic methionine fed to birds, over their life spans.

The idea behind averaging—which until now has been rejected by the NOSB—is that it would allow the industry to feed higher levels of synthetic methionine during certain key periods of the bird’s life, say, for instance, in the case of laying hens, during first weeks of life and during egg production periods.

CCOF called the “averaging” scheme too complicated, and said it would be nearly impossible to verify or enforce.

The subplot

OCA’s position on synthetic methionine has consistently been that the real issue is non-enforcement of the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) requirement for year-round outdoor access—a requirement ignored by large organic factory farms which produce the vast majority of organic chickens in the U.S.  Instead of providing birds access to the outdoors and real pastures, organic factory farms confine their birds in warehouses, where they are deprived of a natural diet that provides at least some of the methionine required to keep the birds healthy.

Many groups submitted comments at the Spring NOSB meeting in support of OCA’s position. PCC Natural Market’s Trudy Bialic argued that the allowance of unnecessary texturizing synthetic additives, along with animal welfare standards that don’t meet consumers’ expectations, are leading to the erosion not only of organic livestock product sales, but are also having a negative impact on organic sales in other departments. Bialic also noted how frequently consumer concerns are belittled by NOSB members.

Excellent comments were presented in defense of previous NOSB actions that moved the industry toward the long-stated goal of phasing out synthetic methionine, including the 2010 NOSB meeting in which the stepdown of MET levels in feed rations were approved 12-2, and the averaging of feed levels over the life of the chicken was voted down 12-2.

In my role representing OCA, I pointed out that the European Union (EU) does not allow synthetic methionine in organic poultry diets. Instead, organic farmers raise traditional breeds of chickens that live longer and require lower amounts of methionine in their diets. The EU also requires more space per bird, fewer birds per house, and greater access to the outdoors.

At one point in the testimony, Calvin Walker, an NOSB Consumer advocate, was cut off by Livestock Subcommittee Chair Tracy Favre, while attempting to testify to the importance of NOSB respecting previous Board precedence, the original intent behind allowing synthetic methionine on the National List, the lack of new scientific evidence, lack of new independent information, lack of a consensus among stakeholders, and failure to address the issue of expiration date.

When it came time for representatives of the poultry industry to speak, it was clear that the industry is desperately clinging to the indefinite use of synthetic methionine (for the health of chickens, they say, though it’s well-known that synthetic methionine is also a growth promoter).

Let the real drama begin

Public comments closed late Tuesday evening. That’s when things got interesting. Word quickly spread that NOSB handler/processor representative Harold Austin of Zirkle Fruit Company had fallen after the meeting and broken his hip.  That raised the question: How would the Board manage the vote on synthetic methionine with Austin, rumored to be the key vote, in the hospital?

As it turned out, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Austin didn’t vote on any of the 20-plus voting issues on Wednesday, including matters on the Handling Subcommittee, of which he’s Chair.

Yet on Thursday he was able to vote, by Skype, on the synthetic methionine issue.

With great fanfare throughout the room, urged on by the passionate cheerleading of Board Chair Jean Richardson, Austin was Skyped into the meeting from his hospital bed, in the nick of time, between physical therapy sessions. His argument? We should feed more synthetic methionine “for the welfare of the chickens.”

Richardson made a point to announce that USDA Office of general Counsel had been contacted, and that it had been determined that it was legal for Austin to participate from a remote location.

NOSB farmer representative Colehour Bondera called a point of order on the legality of remote voting, citing the wording and page number of Robert’s Rules requiring Board members to be present for vote unless previously allowed in their bylaws. But the NOP ignored the rules, and allowed the testimony.

With the unlawful approval of Austin’s remote vote, the majority had the 10 votes needed to approve the petitioned increase of synthetic methionine using averaging.

In the end, the final outcome came as no surprise. Moments after allowing averaging of synthetic methionine feed over the life of the bird, on a 10-4 vote, followed by the approval of the requested 2.5 pounds per bird for broiler chickens, on a 10-4 vote, the Board shamelessly voted unanimously, in what was clearly just an empty resolution intended to appease those opposed, that synthetic methionine should be phased out!

The synthetic methionine drama will continue to unfold at the fall NOSB meeting in Vermont, when the methionine stepdown levels approved at the 2010 meeting are scheduled sunset.

Sampling of comments submitted by OCA petition signers

Here are a few of the many excellent comments submitted by organic consumers who signed the OCA petition asking the NOSB to phase out the use of synthetic methionine in chicken feed.

I want to be sure that organic labels mean truly organic, without synthetic methionine.  As a breast cancer survivor, my diet needs to be without growth-promoting supplements.  I urge you to please maintain truly organic standards.

My niece can’t eat eggs from the store because they trigger her migraines.  Eggs that don’t trigger her migraines are from chickens that are raised naturally.  Think about that.  Also, being humane to farm animals and letting them roam out on grass pastures is how they are meant to live.

Organic chicken means free range on pastures, natural growth rate and chemical free birds. STOP using chemicals to promote the chickens growth or LABEL correctly stating the use of chemicals so the product IS NOT ORGANIC!

Keep ALL synthetics out of organic, please.  We organic farmers do our best to be as organic (and truly natural) as possible.  Support us.

Just follow the organic standards please.

ORGANIC CHICKENS should NOT be housed INSIDE with synthetic diets….THAT IS NOT WHAT ORGANIC BUYERS EXPECT AND IS NOT RIGHT.  Next to Organic disclose that the chickens are kept indoors without access to pasture…and are fed synthetic diets.  NO ONE WOULD BUY YOUR ORGANIC chickens.

Find testimony from the NOSB meeting

Patrick Kerrigan is retail education coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association.