Leaders of Maine’s organic farming community say they want to be part of the discussion about federal rule changes regarding substances and ingredients allowed in organic food processing.

New rules were made without public input and could have a chilling effect on consumer confidence in the $35 billion organic market in the U.S., say the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and 14 other groups nationwide who are suing the federal government. They want the rules overturned and a voice in new ones that would be made.

“The issue that is being raised in that lawsuit is the concern over the process that was used to create the rules,” said MOFGA Executive Director Ted Quaday Thursday. “Local organic farmers in particular were sort of cut out of that process. They didn’t have an opportunity in a public forum to talk about or weigh in or share their opinions about the impact of the rule of change.”

The suit claims the U.S. Department of Agriculture violated federal rulemaking procedures when it changed the process to review the use of non-organic and synthetic substances used to produce the foods and did so without public input.

In September 2013, the USDA announced changes in the rule it had been operating under since the inception of the national organic program. Unity-based MOFGA and the other groups want a judge to overturn the new rule that changed oversight of the way certain agricultural products are certified to be labeled organic.

Under the old rule, a substance had to qualify every five years after a review of the hazards associated with it weighed against the need for the substance. Now substances stay on the allowed list unless there is a specific vote by the National Organic Standards Board to remove it, which eliminates an automatic review that looked at whether the need to use the non-organic material still exists.

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Materials used to produce foods labeled organic can remain on the national list in perpetuity unless the National Organic Standards Board takes the initiative to vote it off the list.

Dave Colson, an organic farmer in Durham and MOFGA’s agricultural services director, said farmers will not see much of an effect from the rule changes, but allowing the USDA to make its own rules without public oversight could have a negative impact on the burgeoning national trend toward organic food consumption.

“The suit is more around maintaining the democratic process of decision making in organic production, which is why the National Organic Standards Board was created originally,” Colson said. “It was created first to set up the program, but then secondly to continue to help make improvements to the program.”

He said organic farmers will not notice much of a difference in their production and sales or whether a substance ends up on one of the lists or taken off one of the lists for now. But all that could change if the suit is not successful.

Colson said with the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. producers and processors wanted an oversight panel and a national standard for recommendations to the USDA to determine what was allowed in organic practices.

“This process was kind of turned on its head by the USDA,” Colson said. “The lawsuit is primarily about how decisions like this are made by the USDA so that farmers and organizations representing farmers have a voice in the process of things being changed.”

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Colson said the old rules worked well with public input and oversight every five years, but all that could change if the new rules remain in place.

“At this point we have a program and an administration that’s pretty sympathetic,” he said. “But down the road we could have pressures to make major changes to the program that would really affect consumers’ confidence in the organic label and that’s one of the biggest fears for farmers.”

The word organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods, according to the USDA. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the group contends that the department failed to hold a required public hearing or seek public comment when it changed the way non-organic substances are approved for processing organically grown ingredients.

The suit asks a federal judge to order the USDA to reconsider its decision on the rule change and return to the agency’s traditional public hearing and comment process.

Quaday said what is on or not on the list of approved substances is not at issue in the suit. The issue is the opportunity for the public to weigh in on any rule change that the USDA organic program might suggest or might want to make.

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“If you allow the precedent to stay — that they can make a rule change without that input — then what happens in the future, generally about all the rules in the organic program,” he said. “Are they bound to follow a public input process or can they just arbitrarily make changes — that’s the issue.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow


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