USDA OrganicThe Cornucopia Institute (CI), an organic farming watchdog agency, is challenging what it calls a conspiracy between corporate agribusiness interests and USDA, which CI says has increasingly facilitated the use of questionable synthetic additives and potentially dangerous chemicals in organic foods. In its white paper, The Organic Watergate, the organization details what it defines as violations of federal law—ignoring congressional intent—that have created a climate of regulatory abuse and corporate exploitation.

When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, it set up an independent advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that has statutory power. Any synthetic input or ingredient used in organic farming or food production must be reviewed by the NOSB to assure that it is not a threat to human health or the environment, according to CI.

CI charges USDA with “stacking the NOSB with agribusiness executives that all too often have sold out the interests of organic farmers and consumers.”

“The organic community came together and actually asked the government, in order to maintain a level playing field and organic integrity, to regulate our industry,” says Mark A. Kastel, CI co-director. “How many other industries have ever asked the federal government for tough regulations and enforcement?”

To satisfy the concerns of the organic industry with the involvement of the federal government, Congress specifically earmarked 15 seats on the NOSB for farmers, consumers, scientists and environmentalists as a way to balance the power of commercial interests involved in organic food manufacturing, marketing and retail sales, according to CI.

But, CI says there are problems with several current NOSB members. They range from people being appointed for positions where they have no experience to positions held by those who do not fit the description—e.g., not an owner or operator of an organic farm. Another consumer/public interest position was filled by one who never worked for or represented a public interest organization, but has worked in several corporate positions.

Since NOSB was not constituted by Congress to be a scientific body, it relies on legally mandated technical reviews by impartial scientists of any synthetic materials that are petitioned for use in organics. According to CI, a small handful of scientists, working for corporate agribusiness, supplied the “independent” analyses to the board. For example, an executive from a major food manufacturer authored 45 of 50 technical reviews during a two-year period in the 1990s.

To read the complete 75-page CI report, which includes an extensive reference list, download it from the Cornucopia website.