In 1990, the United States government enacted the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) as part of the Farm Bill. In 1995, the definition of “organic” was updated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which was created by OFPA to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on organic standards.
“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
“‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
“Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.
“Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”
Who is the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)?
This group of citizen volunteers meets twice a year and makes recommendations to the Secretary of the Agriculture. The NOSB has been criticized for watering down organic standards and being influenced by corporate lobbyists. The panel disproportionately represents big business and has not been filled appropriately. The board is suppose to consist of “four farmers, two handlers, three environmentalists, three representatives of the public, a certifier, a retailer representative, and a scientist”. The Cornucopia Institute reports:
As of the last NOSB meeting, an employee of a $15 billion agribusiness, General Mills, held the scientist’s slot. An employee of a $700+ million corporate agribusiness, Organic Valley, held one of the four farmer slots. And recently, USDA Secretary Vilsack appointed another corporate representative, Carmela Beck, to a farmer slot. These appointments, filling slots reserved for scientists and organic farmers with corporate representatives, lead to undue levels of corporate influence on the Board (already holding numerous other NOSB seats), which Congress clearly did not intend.
Organic food is big business now.
What is Organic Watergate?
The Cornucopia Institute is calling the current approval of genetically mutated DHA & ARA oils by the NOSB “Organic Watergate” because corporate “stacking” of the NOSB has led to a weakening of organic standards.
The investigation into the “Organic Watergate” was prompted by the approval of highly processed DHA and ARA oils from genetically mutated algae and soil fungus, petitioned by the $12 billion multinational corporation Royal DSM/Martek Biosciences Corporation.
The approval, by a narrow margin, shocked public interest groups that had opposed the petitions. Not a single public interest or consumer organization had favored the approval of Martek’s oils; yet the NOSB Chair, Tracy Miedema, who had aggressively championed Martek’s oils, served in a consumer slot – reserved by law for individuals who represent public interest or consumer organizations.
Miedema never, during her five-year term on the Board, represented a public interest organization. With the approval of Martek’s oils, championed by a “consumer” representative on the Board, it became clear that the corporate stacking of the Board leads to the erosion of the integrity of the organic label, with real repercussions for organic consumers, farmers, and the public interest.
In question are the technical reviews of substances reviewed by the NOSB. Just like with pharmaceutical reviews, “past technical reviews have generally been produced by corporate executives, consultants serving corporate agribusiness or closely aligned academics”. The potential profits from organic approval means the stakes are high for these companies to skew technical reviews in their favor.
Once a substance is accepted by the NOSB, it is reviewed every five years to see if it remains acceptable for organic standards. This is called the Sunset Review Process. With approval, Martek’s genetically mutated oils will remain on the approved list until 2020.
It’s not just the approval of the DHA and ARA oils that show the process is flawed. Cornucopia reports:
Since carrageenan was currently pending a sunset review, Cornucopia staff next examined this ingredient, approved for use in organics in 1995, which has long been controversial due to research showing it causes gastrointestinal inflammation. One type of carrageenan is listed by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as a “possible human carcinogen.”
Who would have thought, when members of the organic community lobbied Congress to set up a system to assure integrity in the organic industry, that we would find the National Organic Standards Board approving a food ingredient classified by the World Health Organization as a “possible carcinogen” in organic food?
Not only did the review process break down when carrageenan was first approved by the NOSB in the mid-1990s, it was flawed when it was re-reviewed five years after the organic regulations went into effect, at sunset. 100% of the public comments, at that time, were in support of its continued use in organics. All comments came from corporations producing carrageenan, agribusinesses using the ingredient and the Organic Trade Association.
Martek genetically mutated DHA and ARA oils are used in organic baby formula
According to a USDA brochure on organic standards, organic food is described as:
“What is organic food? Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.” Consumer Brochure, USDA National Organic Program, http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Consumers/brochure.html
Due to bioengineering, Martek oils do not meet this definition.
DHA and ARA oils are included in infant formula to add essential nutritional oils found in breastmilk. They are called long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) important for brain development. Adverse reactions have been experienced by some infants on formula containing this additives, including Sudden Death Syndrome.
According to Source Watch:
GM but Recommended for Approval for Organic List?
Martek’s DHA and ARA oils have been recommended by the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) for addition to the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.” However, these additives are produced using methods of genetic modification such as “microencapsulation,” which is expressly banned by the USDA National Organic Program definition of “Excluded methods” (Title 7, § 205.2 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations).
Previous USDA Scandal
In 2006, according to the Washington Post, FDA staff members determined that the companies producing organic baby formula were not permitted to add DHA and ARA to their formulas, both of which are Martek products. However, the decision was overruled by deputy U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) administrator Barbara Robinson. The move was highly controversial. DHA and ARA were not approved synthetics by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) because a potential neurotoxin called hexane is used in the production process for the fatty acids.
WTF? Neurotoxins created by organic food production?
As if genetically mutated algae approval was not enough, Martek oils create n-hexane in production. N-hexane is a neurotoxin. Martek, is in fact, one of the “top 100 largest emitters of this hazardous air pollutant in the United States”. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which largely downplays toxic substances,
When rats are exposed to n-hexane in the air, they show signs of damage to their nervous systems very similar to those seen in people who became ill after workplace exposure. As in people, these effects in rats depend on the concentrations of n-hexane in air and how long exposure lasts. Studies in rats showed that a breakdown product of n-hexane (called 2,5-hexanedione) causes the nerve damage, not n-hexane itself.
Workers in Italy and Japan have experienced paralysis from n-hexane exposure.
PR Watch reports:
Martek’s additives are now added to more than 99 percent of American infant formulas, according to the company, as well as baby foods, supplements, milk and other food products. This includes 90 percent (in 2009) of formulas certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In summary, Martek’s LCPUFAs do not meet organic standards by definition. The process of extraction from algae involves methods not approved (Title 7, § 205.2 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations). The production of n-hexane during manufacturing is does not “minimize pollution”. The very approval of Mertek’s oils shows the NOSB make up does not reflect citizen representatives but industry members making decisions for corporate interests rather than public safety and well-being. This is a scandal worthy of the title Organic Watergate.