USDA logoThe National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is a body appointed by the Federal government to assist with a wide range of issues relating to organic foods, including food safety. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website, the NOSB “considers and makes recommendations on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products.”

The NOSB was established via the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), a piece of legislation that also established a National Organic Program (NOP) to be overseen by an internal unit of the USDA. The NOP was designed to serve the primary role of defining and standardizing production of organic foods.

About the Membership of the NOSB

The OFPA mandated the establishment of the 15-member NOSB in order to “assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production.” The USDA nominates a certain number of individuals from within the public organic community and submits each for consideration. Appointment to the Board is at the sole discretion of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

NOSB members, who each serve a five-year term, are given responsibilities according to their particular area of expertise. Currently, four members “own or operate an organic farming operation.” Two of the members “own or operate an organic handling operation.” One member “owns or operates a retail establishment with significant trade in organic products.”

Additionally, three members possess “expertise in areas of environmental protection and resource conservation.” Three of the members “represent public interest or consumer interest groups,” and one has “expertise in the fields of toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry.” Finally, one member “is a USDA-accredited certifying agent.”

The rationale given for existence of NOSB, not to mention other organizations that specialize in the sale of organic products, is the fact that marketplace demand for such products has skyrocketed. According to the Organic Trade Association, U.S. organic sales totaled approximately $43.3 billion in 2015 – an all-time high.

The Federal Advisory Committee Act and the NOSB

The NOSB is governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), the jurisprudence that sets forth the Board’s rights and responsibilities. At a macro level, the 1972 FACA law defines the reach of every U.S. federal advisory committee, a classification the NOSB received under the OFPA 18 years later.

FACA effectively formulated a method of recognizing “a process for establishing, operating, overseeing, and terminating […] advisory bodies,” in addition to monitoring all federal advisory boards for compliance.  Importantly, FACA defines an ‘advisory committee’ as “any committee, board, commission, council, conference, panel, force, or other similar group […] (dispensing) advice or recommendations to the President of the United States.”

One foundational component of FACA is ensuring the availability of U.S. federal advisory committees to the public. As such, the NOSB assembles bi-annually in a forum open to the public. During the public forum, NOSB members introduce, discuss and vote on various proposals. According to the USDA website, NOSB encourages “public input via advance written and in-person oral comments.”

Responsibilities of the NOSB

One of the more noteworthy duties of NOSB is to produce a proposal that details substances that may or may not be used in organic crop and livestock production. “The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances,” as it is called, specifies both non-synthetic (natural) and synthetic substances.

According to the USDA website, synthetic substances are generally prohibited for purposes of crop and livestock production unless specifically permitted. Conversely, substances of the natural variety are typically allowed unless specifically prohibited.

Allowed and Prohibited Substances, as well as other NOSB proposals, are presented to the 15-member panel. Each proposal requires a two-thirds majority to be considered approved.

Proposals that meet this requirement are subsequently provided to the appropriate parties within the USDA and presented to the Secretary via the appropriate channel. In this case, that is the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) National Organic Program, which also serves as the NOSB’s administrative body. Any recommendations may or may not be presented to Congress for legislative action.

Recent Controversies Involving the NOSB

Given the amount of money involved in the sale of organic products, it is perhaps unsurprising that a vociferous and ongoing debate continues concerning NOSB activity.

Recently, the NOSB voted by a 10-3 margin to remove carrageenan from a list of approved organic substances. Carrageenan is extracted from edible seaweed. According to Food Safety News, carrageenan is “commonly used as a thickener and stabilizer in infant formula, dairy products, non-dairy milk, meats, and drink mixes.” Existing FDA approval of carrageenan has amplified the debate surrounding the safety of the natural binding agent.

The second issue revolves around the NOSB debate regarding “bioponics,” which are production methods that combine hydroponics and aquaponics to produce crops without the use of soil. This debate is particularly noteworthy, as bioponic practices have held organic certification since 2002, the year of the establishment of the National Organic Program.

In the cases of carrageenan and bioponics, industry and organic advocates are butting heads, with each side arguing that eventual approval or denial of such products will advance or regress any progress made on behalf of the organic foods industry. In other words, just another “day at the office” for the NOSB and USDA.