January 24, 2005:
During the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing of Nebraska Gov. Mike
Johanns for Secretary of Agriculture, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont
posed a series of written questions concerning organic agriculture.
Secretary Johanns’ answers might surprise you!
Sen. Leahy asked lengthy, informative questions. I have included
most of Sen. Leahy’s questions and Sec. Johanns’ responses
With an annual rate of growth of 20 percent per year in organic
retail sales, organic agriculture is clearly a bright spot in our
agricultural economy. Yet the strength of the organic market is
highly dependent on consumer confidence in the integrity of the
USDA organic label. Therefore, it is critical that USDA take its
role as the administrator of the National Organic Program seriously.
This commitment needs to start at the top, with the Secretary of
Agriculture, as well as with those who administer the organic programs
directly. Please describe your commitment to organic agriculture,
and provide your views on the role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
in preserving the integrity of the USDA organic label.
Sec. Johanns: I believe USDA should fully support
organic agriculture as an excellent marketing opportunity for producers
to succeed in today’s competitive global market. Support for
organic agriculture should include a full commitment to the integrity
of the USDA organic label.
In April of 2004, USDA’s National Organic Program issued a
series of controversial “guidance” and “directive”
documents regarding interpretations of the Organic Foods Production
Act and its implementing rule. These documents caused a great deal
of consternation to me and within the organic community, because
they threatened to undermine the integrity of the USDA organic label
in several key areas. As a result of widespread public concern about
these documents and the lack of consultation with the oversight
Committees or the organic community prior to their issuance, Secretary
Veneman announced that these documents would be rescinded. While
this decision by Secretary Veneman was much applauded by me and
by the organic community, no action was taken by USDA to clarify
the status of these documents with the organic certifiers in the
field. The documents simply vanished from the National Organic Program
website, but the uncertainty created by the documents with regard
to certain organic standards has remained. At the October meeting
of the National Organic Standards Board, USDA staff concurred with
the Board’s recommendations for clarifying the troublesome
documents, and committed to posting those clarifications on the
National Organic Program website within two weeks. However, several
months later, those clarifications have still not been made. Will
you provide your commitment to make it a priority to proceed with
the clarifications of these April 2004 organic standards documents,
in keeping with the commitments made by the AMS Deputy Administrator
for Transportation and Materials during the October meeting of the
National Organic Standards Board? And if so, I would appreciate
it if you could provide me with a commitment about when those clarifications
will be made, given that they have already been significantly delayed.
Sec. Johanns: I will make it a priority to work
with the Agency to assure that clarifications are issued and published
on the National Organic website for all interested parties.
Sen. Leahy: The Organic
Foods Production Act of 1990 created the National Organic Standards
Board “to assist in the development of standards for substances
to be used in organic production and to advise the Secretary on
any other aspects of the implementation” of the Act. In recognition
of the significant responsibilities of the Board, Congress has repeatedly
directed USDA to hire an Executive Director for the Board and provided
increased funds to the National Organic Program for that purpose.
Yet no formal action has been taken to fill this position. Please
comment on the status of the NOSB Executive Director position. Will
you provide your commitment that the position will be announced
at a GS 12-14, or higher? If there are budget constraints in meeting
this requirement, please specify the additional budget needs in
Sec. Johanns: It is my understanding that USDA
has received input from the National Organic Standards Board and
is currently developing a position description for an Executive
Director. The Executive Director position will be established at
a grade level consistent with its responsibilities. Adequate funds
are available to support this position.
In the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), Congress directed
the USDA to create a Peer Review Panel to assist the Secretary in
evaluating and approving organic certifier applications for accreditation.
Congress’ intent for the creation of the Peer Review Panel
has been reiterated in both the Fiscal Year 2004 and 2005 Agricultural
Appropriations processes. Because the role of the organic certifying
agents is so critical to assuring the integrity of the USDA organic
label, it is crucial that USDA accredit only those certifiers who
are fully qualified and are capable of assuring adherence to the
strict standards that consumers expect. In OFPA, Congress envisioned
the Peer Review Panel to be comprised of “not less than three
persons who have expertise in organic farming and handling methods”
to assist the Secretary in evaluation of applications of certifying
agents seeking accreditation, to ensure that the accreditation process
is consistent with existing norms and the intent of the law. To
date, the USDA has failed to create such a panel. Can I have your
commitment that you will move forward as expeditiously as possible
in the creation of the Peer Review Panel?
Sec. Johanns: Yes, I will work with the Agency
to consult with the National Organic Standards Board to formalize
a peer review panel on an on-going basis.
USDA organic standards for livestock and poultry production require
access to the outdoors and to pasture. Consumers of organic livestock
products rightfully assume and expect that livestock and poultry
products that carry the USDA organic label come from animals that
been provided with such outdoor access. Will you comment on your
commitment to uphold the outdoor access and pasture requirements
of the USDA organic standards for livestock and poultry?
Sec. Johanns: I believe USDA should continue its
commitment to upholding the regulations describing the requirements
for access to the outdoors and pasture.
In creating the National Organic Standards Board, Congress intended
the Board to be a citizen panel of experts representing a broad
array of stakeholders from the organic community. Currently, there
are five vacancies on the Board awaiting replacement by the Secretary.
As you seek to fill these crucial positions, will you commit to
filling them with candidates with demonstrated organic experience,
representing a broad array of stakeholders, including those representing
the interests of small-and-medium-scaled organic producers and processors?
Sec. Johanns: I believe USDA should continue reaching
out to every organic producer, processor, and certifying agent in
the United States in order to obtain a diverse pool of qualified
candidates for filling the five vacancies on the National Organic
Standards Board. Further, I believe that the candidates submitted
for selection should represent a broad spectrum of interests within
the U.S. organic community.
In addition, if confirmed do you support Department efforts to coordinate
organic production and handling data collection and analysis between
various agencies, such as NASS, ERS, CSREES, ARS, and NOP? Will
you work to increase US exports of organic products by working with
the International Trade Commission to facilitate the creation of
voluntary export codes? Will you support a budget that includes
funding the inexpensive, unfunded authorizations for organic in
the 2002 Farm Bill?
Sec. Johanns: I will fully support efforts to
coordinate organic production and handling data collection and analysis
among all USDA agencies, and will work to promote U.S. organic products,