Dec. 20, 2006 – Food-safety activists are protesting the government's attempt to stack an organic-food advisory board with representatives of corporate agribusiness and food commerce.
Earlier this month, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the appointment of four new members to the National Organic Standards Board. The Board assists the USDA in determining what substances officially qualify as organic.
The USDA tapped individuals who represent Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, Phillips Mushroom Farms, and Stahlbush Island Farms to join the fifteen-member panel.
According to its charter, the Board is to include up to seven business representatives and three environmentalists, three consumer advocates, and a scientist. However, while all of the new appointees come from the business world, three of them are designated to fill seats reserved for an environmentalist, a consumer advocate and a scientist.
Phillips Mushroom Farms is the largest grower of specialty mushrooms in the United States. Out of fifteen cultivated mushroom varieties sold by Phillips, five are listed as organic. Tina Ellor, the USDA's choice to fill an "environmentalist" slot on the Board, is the technical director at Phillips. Ellor will replace outgoing member Nancy M. Ostiguy, from the Department of Entomology at Penn State. Ostiguy did not have any listed ties to industry.
Stahlbush Island Farms is a 4,000-acre farm in Oregon. While the farm's website says it uses sustainable farming practices, these appear to include the use of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides in growing some crops. The site says, "If chemicals are necessary, we look to the organically approved chemical list first." Tracy Miedema, national sales and marketing manager of Stahlbush Farms, was appointed to represent consumer- and public-interest groups on the Board.
Both Campbell and General Mills manufacture food with genetically modified ingredients, though the companies also offer organic food. The USDA appointed Steve DeMuri, a senior manager at Campbell and technical expert of the company's organic production, to fill an organic food "handler/processor" position on the Board.
Meanwhile, Katrina Heinze, who manages global regulatory affairs for General Mills, was tapped as a scientist member of the Board. She holds a PhD in chemistry, but she will replace a scientist with no listed industry ties.
Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist with the Organic Consumers Association, said Americans should be concerned with the appointees' industry ties because the National Organic Standards Board is in a powerful position to help weaken or strengthen national organic standards. "A [National Organic Standards Board] that makes decisions in favor of big business will undoubtedly hurt organic family farmers and consumers as the organic standards are weakened by those that are simply profit motivated," Craig told The NewStandard.
With the new appointees, at least twelve of the Boardâ€™s fifteen seats will be held by members with clear industry interests.
The Organic Consumers Association is urging Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and members of Congress to intervene and "work with the USDA to remove inappropriate appointees and reopen the appointment process to unbiased and non-industry-related candidates," according to a press statement.
In a written statement, the USDA told TNS the appointees are "extremely well qualified" and "represent organic production in Eastern, Midwestern, and the Pacific regions of the United States."
According to a USDA press statement, the agency solicited more than 11,000 certified organic producers and handlers for board nominees.