Mandated Safety Review of Materials/Ingredients Used in Organics Being Conducted by USDA Corporate Appointees and Agribusiness-Funded “Nonprofit”
The Story: A Quick Overview
- Misinformation on social media concerning Apeel™, a coating used on organic fruits and vegetables, confused toxic ingredients in a sanitation product marketed in the UK for the food grade, “edible film” on produce.
- The dustup sensitized organic consumers to the corporate-dominated safety review of synthetic and non-organic materials used in organic production.
- Agribusiness-affiliated members of the National Organic Standards Board, along with a corporate-funded, unregulated, quasi-nonprofit, the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), determine what is safe and unsafe on behalf of the organic community.
- OrganicEye released a white paper focusing on coatings used to preserve produce, including Apeel, which is registered with the EPA as a fungicide. Some of the coatings, unbeknownst to vegans and those with religious and other dietary restrictions, contain animal products and other potential allergens. At least one is a carcinogen.
- OrganicEye has sent a formal request to the USDA asking for rulemaking that will create a new layer of accountability.
La Farge, Wis. — The nation’s most experienced industry watchdog, OrganicEye, announced that they have sent a formal request to the USDA asking for rulemaking that will create a new layer of accountability in the approval of synthetic and non-organic materials being allowed for use in organic food production.
Under subsequent Republican and Democratic administrations, the independent panel created by Congress, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), has been increasingly dominated by members of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the industry’s most prominent lobby group.
“What has seriously undermined the credibility of organic food safety is that, after the NOSB gets done with their reviews, all too often kowtowing to food industry interests in approving generic substances, the responsibility for reviewing branded and formulated products (food ingredients and agricultural inputs) is handed off to an industry-led and funded nonprofit, the Organic Materials Review Institute, or OMRI,” said Mark Kastel, Executive Director of Wisconsin-based OrganicEye.
OrganicEye’s interest in scrutinizing the review process of synthetic/nonorganic materials was renewed by a brewing controversy over natural and synthetic compounds approved for coating certified organic fruits and vegetables to preserve appearance and freshness.
In recent weeks, websites and social media channels have been buzzing with concern about a product called “Apeel.” While the material safety data sheet (MSDS) circulating online has since been found to be for a sanitation product by the same name marketed in the UK, not the fungicide/food coating approved for use in organics by OMRI, the brouhaha that ensued did serve to highlight the fact that most organic fruits and vegetables in the marketplace are produced by industrial-scale companies that are generally also involved in conventional agriculture, and whose products are shipped great distances around the country, if not the globe.
“When the system is working properly, organic consumers have an extra layer of careful review for any non-organic material used in their food production,” Kastel added. “However, the dependence on the corporate sector and lobbyists to protect the interests of the public is obviously disconcerting.”
OrganicEye suggests that consumers who put a premium on securing the freshest, most nutrient dense, and safest food for their families start by seeking out organically produced options from their local foodshed.
Most tree fruits in grocery stores this time of the year, such as apples and pears, were harvested last fall in the Pacific Northwest, coated with materials to seal in moisture, and then stored in controlled environments designed to retain their appearance and retard spoilage.
Likewise, many vegetables, especially greens that are hydroponically grown in a liquid fertilizer solution instead of rich soil, are packaged in plastic containers where the oxygen is evacuated and substituted with an inert gas.
“There’s a lot of old food out there, with varieties being grown that don’t emphasize flavor and nutrition but rather storage and durability for transport,” Kastel said. “Eating more seasonally and seeking out fresh produce grown locally — ideally from your own garden — disconnects your refrigerator and pantry from the industrial food system.”
OrganicEye has published a white paper on food coatings in general, with background on Apeel, which is available on their website.
OrganicEye’s Kastel added, “We have a saying here in Wisconsin, ‘Don’t go out to the garden to pick the sweetcorn until the water is boiling on the stove.’ The flavor and nutritional profile of fresh local produce is unparalleled.”
Even in the dead of the winter in northern climates, enterprising organic farmers grow luscious dark green spinach in unheated hoop houses and use many other cultural practices to extend the growing season. That ensures that great local produce is available for much of the year at farmers markets, direct from CSAs (community sponsored agriculture farms), and at independent and natural food cooperative grocers that source regionally.
OrganicEye is currently promoting a campaign to put pressure on the Biden administration to reduce its dependence on political appointees from corporate agribusiness in organic regulatory oversight.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know how the IRS has decided that the Organic Materials Review Institute qualifies as a tax-exempt charitable organization,” said Kastel.
“The vast preponderance of OMRI’s income comes as fees from corporations seeking approval for materials they manufacture and annual subscriptions from for-profit certifiers accessing their data.”
OrganicEye describes OMRI as a business-to-business service provider. Based on their most recent Form 990, the organizational filing to the IRS, their revenue exceeded $7 million.
Although the organization purports to operate as a publicly supported charity and posts an ethical qualification on their website refusing donations from existing or prospective corporate clients, contributions in 2021 only totaled $350 of their $7 million plus budget or .0000488% of total revenues.
OMRI’s current Executive Director previously ran the nation’s largest accredited organic certifier, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). CCOF is one of the largest members and corporate donors to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the prominent organic lobby that has been embroiled in several major controversies in recent years, including helping orchestrate the allegedly illegal certification of soilless produce production.
In addition, according to the OTA website, a seat on the OMRI board is reserved for a designee of the trade-lobby group.
For years OMRI, and at least one other material review organization (MRO), has received a pass in terms of forgoing any type of oversight from the USDA, possibly because they were viewed as an impartial nonprofit. But Kastel has always been skeptical.
“With leadership dominated by the fertilizer manufacturers, agribusiness staffers, and certifiers that financially support OMRI, this is a smorgasbord of conflicts of interest. The same conflicts exist with certifiers being paid by farmers and food processors but the accreditation/oversight of their practices by the USDA, if judiciously applied as mandated by Congress, helps ameliorate the impact. No such scrutiny exists for MROs.”
Over the years, CCOF and other major certifiers, along with the OTA and some OMRI board members, have aggressively lobbied the National Organic Standards Board to add or maintain synthetics and non-organic materials on the National List of approved substances.
“For a long time, we have advocated for certifiers to be prohibited from trying to persuade NOSB members of the safety, essentiality, or appropriateness of synthetic materials being approved in organics. They are, in essence, lobbying on behalf of their corporate clients” said OrganicEye’s Kastel.
Many view this practice by certifiers as a conflict of interest by organizations that should be independent arbiters assuring the credibility of organic production.
“The conflicts of interest in this process are mind-boggling. It’s time for the USDA to change direction to comply with the intent of Congress and save the value of the organic label for ethical farmers and their loyal customers.”