The audit report released on July 20 gave a verdict of “no finding” to the review process for the National List and for selection of members for the NOSB. The response from those watching the organic industry has been one of dismay, which is understandable.
When interpreting the findings of the USDA inspector general, we need to consider a few points. The most important aspect is that suitability of board members is a subtle concept. For example, not everyone can perceive the difference between a long time organic farmer and a conventional farmer who has recently converted to organic farming or between a processor that has been making organic products for 20 years and one who just added an organic component to their product line.
Secondly, the inspector general took a point in time (Oct 2011- Feb 2012) to gauge whether the board and the rulings on the National List follow the regulation. For board members, they examined the standing board members at the time (and not the entire pool of potential members to see if the selections were optimal). In addition, they did not look over the entire history of the board.
Third, the process for discussing substances petitioned (as well as those under sunset clauses) was investigated. This means: for select substances, did the board discuss the issues fully? If you read the NOSB meeting minutes (all available here), the discussions were comprehensive and thorough. This is the tricky part – the board members are the ones determining the type of discussions held regarding ingredients/substances.
Finding board members who are “sympatico” with organic is the best way to ensure that the National List isn’t promoting business interests over the consumer/environmental interest. But the law doesn’t say that you have to be an organic “believer” to be a board member. For example, my discussions with former board members indicate that, from a legal perspective, any person who has purchased one organic product (say one quart of organic milk, one time) is eligible to hold the consumer interest position. Someone with an interest in conservation (but might be a conventional farmer) is eligible to hold the environmental/natural resource position.
So a perfunctory review of the visible evidence is not likely to yield hidden, subtle biases. In that sense, the report is not surprising. Deeper analysis is needed to tease out the biases and their influences (and this is what Christina Bronsing and I are in the midst of right now, but it is a lengthy process to sort through the historical record regarding substances.)
That said, there is value in petitioning USDA to investigate the performance of the NOSB, the NOP and the processes used in reviewing substances for inclusion/exclusion to the National List. Just don’t get too vested in the ability of the USDA to detect nuances.